Cohabitation: How not to start a marriage

Cohabitation: How not to start a marriage

Living togetherDenise Hanson

At 27, my good friend “Suzy “had been living with her boyfriend for about five years.  They had a son together, unplanned, but now welcomed into their home.  They loved each other and finally decided to get married.  Yet, less than three years later, they are now in the heat of a divorce and a harsh legal battle for custody of their child.  As I have recently talked with Suzy, she has told me the heartbreaking story of lost love.  “My parents, my siblings and I went through a hard divorce. I told myself I would never go through that again, and that I would never put my son through that. We lived together, we knew each other.  I don’t understand what happened!”

Is cohabitation a good step to take before marriage?

 It is no surprise that in recent years the percentage of cohabitation has risen dramatically.  “You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it, so why wouldn’t we do the same in marriage?” is a common refrain. Cohabitation, it seems, has become a necessary precursor to marriage and is widely accepted as a good way to “test drive” partners before taking the ultimate “plunge” into marriage.   If this is indeed a good step to take before marriage, why do stories like Suzy’s becoming more, not less, prevalent?

Cohabitation has quickly become a popular alternative to marriage, yet the body of research showing the negative effects of cohabitation continues to grow. Many believe cohabitation to be a simple stepping-stone to marriage; many of these individuals, particularly women, have the intent of marrying later down the road.  The reality is that these marriages do not occur and when they do their chances of success are greatly reduced.  In a study that was completed, using data from the 1987-1988 National Survey of Families and Households, it was found that couples who cohabited before getting married reported having lower quality and lower commitment in marriage, having a greater likelihood of divorce when compared to couples who did not cohabit. These effects are amplified more and more the longer a couple cohabits.

It is a fact that cohabitation does not improve marriage, as many believe, and that it lowers the quality and likelihood of success in marriage later on.  Having parents who love each other and are committed to each other, and create a stable home environment is something that children need.  Lower quality and commitment in marriage leads to divorce and this in turn can be detrimental to a child’s stable home environment, and can have great negative effects on a child.

The habits that are created when a couple lives together are not good ones.  When a couple cohabitates prior to marriage, or as an alternative to marriage all together, they have the expectations of marriage without the true commitment of it.  You can still leave while cohabitating, you are never completely tied to that one person and you can leave without as many legal or social repercussions.  The fact is, cohabitating relationships are unstable and uncommitted.

What about the children involved?

Divorce, child tornAccording to an article in Population Studies: A Journal of Demography,  “About two-fifths of all children spend some time in a cohabiting family, and the greater instability of families begun by cohabitation means that children are also more likely to experience family disruption. Estimates from multi-state life tables indicate the extent to which the family lives of children are spent increasingly in cohabiting families and decreasingly in married families.” Less stable and committed home environments not only negatively affect children and families, but society as well.  It can affect society economically as well, since marriage makes more networks available to children and families. Marriage encourages wealth accumulation, and leads to a wealth advantage of married couples compared to cohabitating couples or single parents.

We all know that no matter what relationship you are in, there will be easy times and hard times.  People are different and one of the reasons we marry is so we can become more loving, more tolerant, and learn how to forgive. There will be hard times, even between two people who deeply love each other and it is sticking together through the hard times that will bring you a coveted marriage relationship.  People who are married are much more willing to fight for their marriages and to put more work toward their relationship when times “get tough”.

Some studies show that cohabitation leads to, or causes, relationship instability, as it is well established that people who cohabit prior to marriage are more likely to divorce. “Alternative research implicates selection rather than causal effects of cohabitation because background characteristics of cohabiters explain much of the relationship between cohabitation and divorce.” This means that those who cohabitate possess similar personality characteristics.  These are the same characteristics that cause lower relationship quality, and put marriages at a higher risk of divorce to begin with.  Although there is some empirical support for this “selection effect,” when this factor is carefully controlled for, cohabitation’s negative effect on later marital stability remains.

 Cohabitation leads to lower stability, commitment and quality of a relationship, heightens the risk of divorce, and puts children at risk of unstable home environments and poverty.  Cohabitation is a dangerous trend in our society and is causing marriages to not be as strong and families to not be as prosperous. If you are debating whether to cohabitate or not, do not do it.  Do not establish those bad habits and relationship feelings.  Marriage is what matter and continues to be the most successful system wherein relationships and children are nurtured.

Denise Hanson

Denise Hanson is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho, majoring in Child Development with a minor in Marriage and Family Studies.  Denise and her husband, David, are the parents of Sophia their 8-month old daughter. 

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