What Have We Learned From Living Together?

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The Divorce Dilemma

Some marriage advocates -- not to mention clergy of various denominations -- see the dramatic increase in cohabitation as a disaster. David Popenoe, PhD, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, PhD, of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, suggest that living together not only results in an inferior relationship, but can help doom a later marriage. They point to a 1992 study of 3,300 couples, which found that those who married after living together were 46 percent more likely to divorce.

Studies published in the Journal of Family Issues in 1995 and in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1996 found that couples living together are less satisfied with their relationship and less likely to be monogamous than those who are married. And a 1997 Pennsylvania State University study found that cohabiting between the ages of 18 and 23 made young men and women more accepting of divorce -- and less enthusiastic about getting married and having children.

Other researchers caution against a simplistic interpretation of these findings. "Cohabitation is associated with higher rates of divorce, but there's no proof that these marriages would have worked if the same couples hadn't lived together first," says Dr. Bumpass. Instead, as he and Dr. Smock point out, a number of factors come into play:

  • Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to be socially liberal and accepting of divorce, while those who don't may be more religious and inclined to stay together no matter what.
  • Some couples who move in together aren't ready to commit to marriage because their relationship is already troubled. (Interestingly, another study done at Penn State in 1999 found that couples who moved in together after they'd made definite plans to marry went on to have marriages every bit as solid and satisfying as those who hadn't lived together until after the wedding.)

Cohabitation may make young people less inclined towards marriage, as the 1997 study found, but these findings have yet to be replicated. And the fact that so many different types of people live together, from the less-affluent to the upscale, makes it hard to use divorce data to draw conclusions that apply to all. "One of the most powerful observations you can make about living together and divorce is that if they were associated in the way some studies suggest they are, the divorce rate would have risen over the last 20 years as cohabitation became more common," says Dr. Bumpass. "It hasn't." (The divorce rate has hovered at around 50 percent since 1980.)

Continued on page 4:  Risks of Sharing a Roof


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