Scott Stanley writing for Psychology Today covers a study by Bowling Green State University sociologist Karen Guzzo showing cohabitation is now more common than marriage for first live-in relationships, and that serial monogamy is now so prevalent, and the commitment involved so minimal, that most live-relationships are never formalized through legal marriage. It may be that the overhead of marriage and divorce for all but the upper classes makes legal matrimony impractical. Further, the huge rise in children born out-of-wedlock is in part due to cohabiting unmarried partners.
Guzzo notes, as have others, that cohabiting has become a normative experience in the romantic and sexual lives of young adults. As young adults put off marriage until later in life, cohabitation has inhabited much of the space that used to be made up of married couples. I think this dramatic change in how relationships form matters for at least two reasons. First, cohabiting couples have become increasingly likely to have children, but they are less likely than married couples to have planned to have children and they are much less likely to remain together after having children. That’s not my subject today, but it should not be hard to see why it matters. Second, most people want lasting love in life, and most people still intend to accomplish that in marriage. However, the ways cohabitation has changed in the past three decades make it less likely that people who have that goal will succeed in it. That’s closer to my focus here.
It is obvious that cohabitation has become de-linked from marriage. Guzzo addresses a complicated question related to this change. Is it because all types of cohabiting couples have become less likely to marry or are there subgroups of cohabiters who are driving the increasing disconnect between moving in and moving on in life together? For example, it used to be the case that a couple who moved in together was very likely to get married—and, engaged or not, had an awareness of this when moving in together. But most experts believe that has changed. Guzzo wondered if those who already planned marriage before moving in together are as likely as ever to marry while all the other groups in the growing and diverse universe of cohabiters might be less likely to marry. Similarly, she examined if demographic changes in who cohabits, when, and under what circumstances changed the way cohabitation relates to marriage (e.g., analyzing variables such as race, education, and the presence of children from a prior relationship).
To simplify and summarize, what Guzzo found is that the increasing diversity in the types of cohabitation and cohabiters does not explain much about why things are so different from the past when it comes to increased odds that cohabiting couples will break up or not marry. Rather, on average, all types of cohabiting couples have become more likely than in the past to break up or not transition into marriage. Here’s a quote from her paper (pg. 834):
“Relative to cohabitations formed between 1990 and 1994, cohabitations formed from 1995–1999, 2000–2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%, respectively, more likely to dissolve than remain intact. The lower risk of marriage over remaining intact occurred only for the last two cohabitation cohorts (2000–2004 and 2005 and later), which were about 18% and 31% less likely to marry than remain intact, respectively.”
Moving in together is becoming less and less likely to lead to having a future together. That’s not to say that all cohabiters are in the same boat regarding their destination. Those who are engaged (or have clear plans to marry) before moving in together are far more likely to eventually marry—but as Guzzo shows, even they are becoming less likely to do so. Related to this, my colleagues and I have shown, in numerous studies, that couples with clear plans to marry before cohabiting, along with those who marry without cohabiting, tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce than those who move in together before having a clearly settled commitment to the future in marriage. (We believe this is largely because, while cohabiting unions obviously break up often, they are harder to break off than dating relationships because it becomes harder to move out and move on. So some people get stuck in a relationship they would otherwise have not remained in.)
Practically speaking, what do Guzzo’s findings tell us? First, taken with the growing body of research in this area, I think we are seeing cohabitation headed toward becoming more ambiguous than ever regarding commitment. Actually, that’s not quite right. Cohabitation seems to be moving toward being, unambiguously, a form of dating with no implications about the odds of marrying. Second, these societal changes make it more important than ever for people who do want to succeed in marriage to be careful about how their romantic relationships before marriage unfold.
If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation. Sure, more and more people are cohabiting, but it’s also less likely than ever to lead to marriage. In fact, people are increasingly cohabiting in ways that are associated with greater risks to the aspiration of marital success. If you are aiming for marriage, aim for a solid choice in a partner and then look to form a public, mutual promise to marry. While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance.
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