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“Cohabitation Doesn’t Cause Divorce After All”: Let’s Check The Data And Consider The Children

 “Cohabitation doesn’t cause divorce after all” [1] reads a recent news headline, though like many headlines on marriage these days it is important to continue reading to gain the full picture of what the research shows.  The news report is based upon a press release from the Council on Contemporary Families [2] citing research being published this month by Arielle Kuperberg, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.   Dr. Kuperberg asserts that “studies have consistently overstated the risk of premarital cohabitation…because they have been comparing couples by their age at marriage rather than by their age when they moved in together.  On average, cohabiters move in together and start trying to “act married” at a younger age than couples who marry directly… [W]hen couples are compared by the age at which they move in together and start taking on the roles associated with marriage, there is no difference in divorce rates between couples that lived together before marriage and those that didn’t.”
She concludes then that “what leads to divorce is when people move in with someone – with or without a marriage license – before they have the maturity and experience to choose compatible partners and to conduct themselves in ways that can sustain a long-term relationship.”  Kuperberg suggests that the age of 23 is a turning point, after which the success rates in relationships increase, regardless of marital status.

Or do they…

Checking The Data

Missing from many of the commentaries on Kuperberg’s research are some important facts.  The data set only included information from first marriages, and only included women under the age of 35.  Further, the researcher included as a control variable information about pregnancies, attempting to account for whether a conception was a factor in the decision to cohabit and/or marry.  Curiously, she chose to exclude pregnancies that were terminated because of abortion.  Why she would chose to do so in unclear.  Further, while that might seem to be a simple thing to do, in practice it is much more difficult.  Those who work with post-abortive women describe two phenomena which could skew Kuperberg’s data set.  First, many women do not report abortions when asked directly in clinical settings, but rather need a secure and trusting relationship prior to acknowledging such an act; second, women have varied and unpredictable reactions towards the father of the child who was aborted, some clinging closely and pursuing more commitment in the relationship, others ending the relationship precipitously and distancing.

These limitations seriously call into question how reasonable it is to generalize Kuperberg’s results, as many in the popular media have done.

Cohabitation: The Bigger Picture

What is factually agreed upon by all is that there has been an astronomic increase in the rates of cohabitation over the past several decades, and that men and women are delaying the age at which they marry.  In addition, the demographics of who chooses to live together before (or instead of) marriage has shifted, from highly educated shunners of social convention in the 1960s, to financially-strapped young people in the current era (“Class Differences in Cohabitation Processes” Sassler & Miller [2011]  Family Relations 60(2), pp. 163–177).    These researchers posit that marriage is a more complicated venture in the 21st century, requiring communication and negotiation skills that are not developed until later in life.

To get a better picture of the limits of Kuperberg’s research, one must consider that left out of the study were those who cohabited but never married, which some place as occurring over ¼ of the time.  If the premise is that cohabitation is ‘taking on marital-type roles,’ it would seem that those who take the informal mode of establishing a residence together and don’t persist long enough to marry, are de facto failing in their relationship, much like a divorce.  Given what we know about gender differences [3] in patterns of nesting and styles of attachment behaviors, it is far from presumable that a failed cohabitation will have no harmful effect on either party going forward.

Adding these factors into the overall analysis of cohabitation would likely result in the traditional conclusions of this type of research: lacking a foundation in both respect for the other and unconditional love is harmful to relationships.  Living together says, “I only want to try you out.  I don’t want all of you, certainly not your fertility, and I don’t want to be responsible for you.”  Surely, there are grave consequences for the man and woman in such a relationship.

And What About The Children?

Any research looking at the phenomena of coupling should necessarily also reflect upon the impact on childrearing, of the way a man and woman approach each other, and the commitments they make.  A previous survey by the CDC found that births to cohabiting couples make up nearly half of all births that occur outside of marriage.  Research also suggests that children of cohabiting couples don’t do as well as those of married couples in terms of education and health.  Some attribute these disparities to the instability and financial struggles of couples, rather than their status as cohabiting (e.g., Corinne Recheck, assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of Cincinnati): “It is not cohabitation that is causing worse child outcomes, but the social conditions within which cohabitation takes place that may matter for child outcomes.” 

One solution offered is “bolstering the socioeconomic resources and residential stability of cohabiting unions…to ameliorate these potential negative effects.”  What Dr. Reczek fails to consider is a solution to the problem that can be accomplished without outside interference, and which actually would be psychologically healthier for all involved, and that is:

Making formal and lifelong commitments, learning to sacrifice for one another, promising to support each other through difficult times… for better or worse, richer or poor.… 

Consistent with these age-old vows, no study has ever shown cohabitation to improve a relationship, and the damage to people and relationships can be severe.  Nevertheless, data trends suggest that a substantial number of people, mostly young adults, continue to live together instead of marrying.  I hope this piece serves as a challenge to those considering their options in current relationships, to consider that which is becoming, sadly, a road less travelled:  one that exults the highest love, the sincerest gift you can make to someone you truly love, to accept them fully, freely choosing to place their dignity, their wellbeing, their needs, above your own.

“Cohabitation doesn’t cause divorce after all” reads a recent news headline, though like many headlines on marriage these days it is important to continue reading to gain the full picture of what the research does and does not show.