Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The curse of cohabitation

Contra common assumptions, premarital cohabitation increases the subsequent chances of marital failure:
In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.
My thinking is that cohabitation presents an intrinsically false model for marriage because it represents the reverse of the structural power relationship within modern marriage. In a cohabitating relationship, the man usually holds the structural upper hand and the woman's behavior is relatively submissive because she knows he can end it at any time without any significant cost to himself.

Once the marriage takes place, the power balance shifts heavily towards the women thanks to the current divorce laws and her behavior tends to change significantly whether she realizes it or not. Even if she is a genuinely committed wife who is totally unwilling to abuse, or even take advantage of, her legally superior position, she is much less likely to be operating with a mindset of pleasing her husband in order to persuade him to continue the relationship because she no longer needs to be concerned about the possibility of the relationship being easily ended without substantial cost.

This is why couples who cohabitate successfully cannot reasonably assume that the comfortable living arrangements they have made will survive the structural shock to the relationship that takes place after marriage. In fact, the more comfortably the couple cohabitates pre-marriage, the more likely it is that they will have serious problems once the legal aspects of that relationship change with the wedding.

One can certainly make a reasonable case for cohabitation as a substitute for marriage, but the evidence suggests that it is unwise to consider cohabitation a precursor to it.


Koanic said...

Major impact from variables like religion, age, SES and race make gen pop stats on this very suspect.

Nolo Promittere said...

From the tone of the article, I figured the studies accounted for variables like religion, age, SES and race. You do that by comparing the individual statistics - how many people with each view of religion get divorced, for instance - and contrasting that with the percentage of people who have that view AND cohabitated who got divorced.

You know, if 50% of people who occasionally go to church get divorced but 60% of people who occasionally go, but also cohabitated got divorced, then the cohabitation may be a factor in the divorce rate independently of the fact that you occasionally go to church.

LibertyPortraits said...

One logistical problem I always saw in people I knew who cohabitated was when the relationship ended, one of them had to leave (or wanted to leave). Not every person in a relationship has family or friends they can jump ship to, and then if both people were contributing towards rent the person who stays in the place with a lease is financially burdened and either seeks a roommate or another partner to help with rent immediately (if they haven't already started cheating in order to bring someone in as soon as the other leaves).

Anonymous said...

Well put down.

The last sentence signed, sealed and delivered...covered all the bases, so to speak. You are a true thinker.

Wondering Goy said...

The self-fufilling prophecy/catch 22 aspect of this is pretty bitter irony. Like so many aspects of civilization, today: The Boomers ruined it, their decendents are left picking up the pieces at their own expense of getting burned.

Anonymous said...

To Vox, for clarity...

Anonymous said...

If you marry the government instead of each other, I can certainly see marriage being a problem.

Ryan said...

Wondering Goy,

You can blame things on the boomers, but only if you are behaving differently. Do you not...

1) vote for the same two parties as the boomers?
2) file a 1040 form just like the boomers?
3) practice birth control just like the boomers?

The boomers were screwed by their parents/grandparents who allowed women's suffrage. All the problems we have today are due to the easy manipulation of women who are the majority of the voters.

The pill and legalized abortion created the situation we have now. Is your generation doing things differently than the boomers? How so?

Ian Ironwood said...

I think this study is suspect for a number of reasons. For one thing, it surveys folks in their 20s. That would have been great in 1968, when the average age for first marriages was under 20, but in the post-industrial world it has risen to 26. Which means that most 20-somethings aren't even seriously considering marriage until much later, and their views on it are still fairly immature.

Secondly, look at the time the study was done. 2001. That was a watershed year for a lot of reasons, but I think it's safe to say that everyone's perspective about the future, marriage and kids took a hit that year.

I'm not saying the study is wrong, I would just like to see more recent and more specific data.

Unknown said...

I've seen this happen. I saw a woman live with a man for a year, and was completely stunned when he left when she wanted to get married and he told her he didn't.

Someday people will get it through their heads (the hard way) that cohabitation before marriage rarely works.

mnl said...

Yes, the cohabitation effect is still there after controlling for other factors. See the following: http://www.smartmarriages.com/cohabit.html and especially their footnote #6.

Yet another explanation for the negative impact of pre-marital cohabitation is that cohabitating couples can easily "slippery slope" themselves into marriage. The rationalization goes like this: we're already co-habitating, we're committed this far, so why not just marry. By contrast, a couple that remains merely boyfriend/girlfriend hasn't made the same mental and physical commitment. If marriage doesn't feel right for them, the boyfriend/girlfriend can more easily back-out mentally. (There's a married couple who are/where sociology professors at Penn State Univ that made this argument but I can't find the reference just now.)

Anonymous said...


Not likely. My sister who studied Sociology (yes, a feminist, useless degree - she wouldn't even accept that "Women's Studies" degrees were useless and don't result in good paying jobs), believes that cohabitation will change since everyone is 'doing it'. Thus, it will not affect divorce rates. What she doesn't consider is the number of people who will not bother with marriage (self-selecting out and thereby cutting down divorce numbers) and the fact that most cohabitations end in separation (but don't count as divorce). By the time a young women gets married, she has already cohabitated with 2 - 3 men...

It's all in how it is spun...

- Abaddon

Anonymous said...

Well, you will be delighted to learn that at last a solution to this mess has been invented...CohabMonkey. This has the best of marriage and cohabitation...without a government marriage. A Cohabmonkey Cohabitation Agreement is fair, encourages long term relationships, personality tests and couples have to use use two independent solicitors/lawyers to advise them BEFORE they sign up on their commitments. It does what a good contract does, protects the interests of both parties so they can invest fully in a mutually rewarding relationship. The Cohab Monkey's Wiki is designed to be a platform where the world's best ideas for tomorrow's couples and families are brought together for sharing with the world's commitment-seeking couples...share the good news, Cohabmonkey.com

Desert Cat said...

What, you think it would be that easy to escape the clutches of the family law system? You think they will really let their tyrannical power slip away? You think the feminists will stand for men being able to enter into fair and balanced contractual agreements with women, subject to standard judicial oversight rather than biased family "courts", if this catches on?


Aeoli Pera said...

Ad rem, I'd love to see Vox's take on the social dilemma of premarital sex.

If all people in a society enter monogamous marriages, it encourages Beta/Delta/Gamma behaviors, which tend to support a stable and productive society (I can't discern whether Omegas would be more prevalent). Generally, I think we prefer such k-selection behaviors in society at large, i.e. mostly doves and relatively few hawks.

But if premarital sex is considered legal/moral, cuckolding becomes easier. When his girlfriend turns out to be pregnant, the schmuck will probably assume the kid is his and feel obligated to marry her and support the child. After all, he's been sexing her on the regular.

The r-selecting ALPHA in this situation benefits from another man raising his child(ren). The r-selecting girlfriend benefits from his ladykiller genes. The k-selecting cuckold gets raped in the ass.

Athol Kay disagrees, saying the benefits of trying before buying outweigh the costs (for the Betas). You also have to take into account the effects of contraception, abortion, and the possible benefits of encouraging Betas, Gammas, and Deltas to cohabitate.

Because as things stand, they are passing on their k-selection genes at an abysmal rate compared to the Alphas and Sigmas. Too many chiefs and not enough indians, as the saying goes. Too many hawks, not enough doves.

Disclaimer: I am a compatibilist, not a strict biodeterminist.

CrisisEraDynamo said...

But the mainstream media says that gender roles are reversing, since women are out-earning men, "want sex more," and do it all.

SouthTX said...

I found myself texting my son advice to marry his young gf after he graduates from engineering college. A beautiful, sweet girl who hasn't been with another. She is head over heels in love. Past's experience thinks he won't turn beta. As a Dad, I want only the best for the kid's. She had an Alpha Father and she say's she only see's the best traits of her Dad in him.

SouthTX said...

Gave the advice only because she has never expressed her natural drama at my house. The boy seems to calm her.

Ariane said...

I think part of it is the attitude. My husband and I did live together before marriage-- but not before engagement, and we viewed it not as a "trial marriage" until something broke, but rather as "marathon training" so we would know how to handle it WHEN something broke. Not to mention that it is a very different dynamic having someone else in your "space" all the time vs. dazzling them on "date night" and then going home to have everything your own way...quite a shock for me as I'd never cohabitated with an SO until that time... you either learn to work it out, or your life is misery. We worked it out, and I like to think we're doing well so far. Of course, we were both over 30, similar background, comparable social status/SMV, and both STEM-types, so that may account for the reality check. YMMV, but I think for some couples, it can be the right decison.

SouthTX said...

Yup. Married my kid's Mom at twenty. Both make 6 figures. We make it simple. She marvels at why the kid's listen to me. She also knows I would take a bullet for them. Pretty simple. I like simple.

Punk said...

Vox keep in mind that most of those couples are probably having sex out of wedlock and have done so in the past. However, how would the number change for couples who lived together, but did not engage in sex until marriage? I've known two religious couples that, due to issues with the homes of their parents, chose to do things this way. Neither couple has had issues with cheating after their marriage. Perhaps religion changes the cohabiting rule.

Fred Mok said...

Vox, your line of reasoning doesn't make sense to me. I think the effect of divorce law is over-rated as a catalyst for shifting power dynamics. It undoubtedly affects the outcome of divorces but I think it's role as an incentive is over-stated. I tend to agree with mnl's comment abov re: slippery slope. It's a way of sliding into marriage rather than jumping in wholeheartedly. It speaks to an insecurity in the couple that is never completely addressed by the cohabitation. Essentially it's a matter of expectations; the couple thinks cohabitation will provide answers on the compatibility but the living together experiment is inconclusive so they end up "settling" for each other though neither is convinced it really worked. Cohabitation is like a infant born prematurely, his early and tentative start sets up for initial developmental obstacles.

LibertyPortraits said...

I thought Vox may, just may, be able to comment on this news article I came across in which low status monkeys binge on junk food and what sort of implications Game theory could glean (or already knew) from this.


LibertyPortraits said...

Oops, let me try and link this a better way.


Daniel said...

Who needs a study? Open your eyes and compare the cohabitor/marrieds that you know with the traditional married or committed, permanent cohabitors.

Cohabitor/marrieds suffer disproportionately from the 7 year issue: date for a year, move in together for four, get engaged for another year, get married. Easily 60% of those sort of marriages that I know of are over by year 7 or 8 from the beginning of dating.

Do one or the other, not both, unless you have a high tolerance for divorce for some strange reason. The only marriages that I've known to survive (so far) from the blend are ones involving at least one Catholic (usually the woman) - Marriage is such a relief from the joked about but no less serious weight of sinful cohabitation that the spouses work extra to maintain the relationship.

Danie said...

The year is irrelevant. I see no difference in the relationships of 1999 than in 2012.

You've got the other thing backwards: The fact that people are surveyed in their 20s and are already cohabitor/married/divorced are demonstrating a higher divorce rate is a result of the relationship blend.

Besides, your numbers are way off. Average age of marriage in 1968 was 23 for men, 20 for women. It hasn't been under 20 ever, and 1968 was much lower than 1890, when marriage ages were about what they are today for men (with women about four years younger - 22 in 1890, 26 in 2012).

The middle of last century was the lowest age of marriage - with higher ages bookending the early and late century.

So, your analysis is suspect for at least two reasons!

The One said...

Get married before God not the gov. It really is that simple.

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