Toward the close of our wedding reception, my wife and I said our goodbyes to family and friends. One particular guest, age 21, parted with the following words, “congratulations you two, I hope it lasts.” There was a strange casual, uneasiness in his tone, suggesting that the outcome of lasting marriage or divorce was completely out of our hands and that everyone on earth knows that fact. We smiled, thanked him for his “support?” while feeling a bit unsettled shortly thereafter. We felt unsettled because a wedding and reception are usually accompanied by individuals who are filled with hope for the happy couple. Was this guest filled with fear and despair? I knew for a fact that he was not. He seemed just as happy and hopeful as the next guest throughout the reception. Then why did he say this so matter-of-factly?
The attitudes of marriage differ according to age group, gender, and culture. In this article I focus mainly on cohabitation as a byproduct of shifting marriage attitudes, though there are many more. It is difficult to specifically determine societal effects on the shifting attitude towards marriage. It seems reasonable to think that whatever an individual and their partner decide on, in regards to their relationship, has no effect on anyone else except that individual and their partner. However, as further research is done on the byproducts of shifting marriage attitudes (i.e. cohabitation, dropping fertility rates, gender blindness to parenting, and more), we begin to see that one’s decision to either marry or cohabit before living together, have children or not, or provide a child with a mother and father actually does affect others—both directly and indirectly.
The attitude of many good young people in the United States towards marriage is not always a hopeful one. In fact, the positive attitude towards marriage is waning as evidenced in the rise of cohabiting couples.1 There seems to be a great fear or an uncertainty looming over the heads of many young people that marriage can only end in divorce. This attitude is destructive to future marriages, future children, and society’s functioning as a system dependent on intact families.
“Let’s just live together” – think again
The above story is only one example of the growing attitude regarding marriage in our society. Media is replete with the myth that cohabitation is a smart, even necessary step to “test drive”2 the relationship. From Dear Abbey3 to NBC news, society is buying into the assumption that cohabitation actually helps prepare a couple for marriage. However, credible research continues to show that cohabitation not only has no effect on improving the relationship after marriage, but is shown to have negative effects on the couple’s relationship quality after marriage.4
Studies that focus on the practice of cohabitation find that in no way does this practice improve the future marriage of that couple. In many cases it has negative effects on the future marriage and increases risk of marital disillusionment. One such study was entitled Should We Live Together and was written by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (2002)5 through the National Marriage Project. In summary, the research they reviewed on cohabitation concluded the following; “There is no evidence that if you decide to cohabit before marriage you will have a stronger marriage than those who don’t’ live together, and some evidence suggest that if you live together before marriage, you are more likely to break up after marriage” (p. 15). Another recent study by Jose, O’Leary, and Moyer (2010)6 was entitled Does Premarital Cohabitation Predict Subsequent Marital Stability and Marital Quality? The study concluded the following; “Couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not cohabit before marriage.”
The research continues to show that this tend does not prove to be beneficial to the marriage agreement. Why then has the uninformed society fallen into the trap of thinking that it is only sure way to “test drive” the vehicle of marriage? Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that many young people are simply uninformed. To be frank, researching the possible effects of cohabitation on a relationship with the love of one’s life is not common protocol—especially for the infatuated young adult. The attitude, like the one expressed in the well-intentioned young man in the story above, gives us a snap shot of the environment that is becoming “normal” for today’s youth. If it is becoming normal that most marriages will eventually fail and that a serious relationship ought to begin within a noncommittal atmosphere (i.e. cohabitation) then what might this mean for the future stability of our society?
We as a society have long since understood the self-evident truth that marriage is not an easy task. It requires a strong, loyal commitment between a man and a woman; a commitment needed to withstand the difficulty of raising children. When we step back and consider society at large, what are we prone to consider? We might be wise to consider what it may look like in the future. We may also consider who will fill the offices and chairs of competent leaders who will guide and guarantee safety, equality, and civility from society’s members. These considerations lead us back to our main issue at hand. Marriage provides an ideal setting where husband and wife commit to one another in raising children, children who will then end up taking the place of future leaders within our society. If we are still under the impression that our marriage attitudes affect no one but the couple, we ought to reconsider this attitude. Behind the backdrop of these considerations and current research on the byproducts of shifting marriage attitudes, we might reconsider the trend of cohabitation as one of the worst ways to “test drive” the vehicle of marriage.
Jimmy is a graduate of BYU-Idaho and plans to attend graduate school in pursuit of a masters in Marriage and family therapy. His passion is in family science. “Social science is not perfect, but it is currently all we have as a society to give us a glimpse of where we have been, where we are at, and where we are going. The hope is that as we become more informed we become more responsible citizens.”
- David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (2002) Should we live together?
- Jose, O’Leary, & Moyer (2010) Does premarital cohabitation predict subsequent marital stability and marital quality?