It all began with a drive. Born almost 100 years ago, Alice and Dale Rockey grew up in the small town of Hemingford, Nebraska. They had never paid any attention to one another until the day they were both supposed to go on a double date…with someone else. They ditched their dates and went for a ride that set the course for the rest of their lives. As soon as Dale turned 18, he asked Alice to marry him. Shortly thereafter they wed on December 29, 1933. This year Dale and Alice celebrated 81 years of marriage. (Kansas City Star) At the time of their marriage, the country was in the middle of a depression. The couple had no money and no college education. Dale went to work at a garage. Alice went to work as a typesetter. The following years brought them five sons, then grandchildren, great-grandchildren and eventually great- great-grandchildren.
Today, such youthful confidence would be considered reckless, foolish…just plain dumb. The current path to marriage is considerably different. In the last decade, two-thirds of women in first unions cohabited before marriage. Once unheard of, society’s attitude towards the practice has shifted significantly. Before the 1970’s, cohabitation was illegal in every state. Today, cohabitation is considered the smart way to determine compatibility. More than 60% of high school seniors “agreed” or “mostly agreed” that living together before marriage helps a couple find out if they really get along. (National Marriage Project) Most couples see living together as a prelude to marriage and believe that doing so will improve their chances of a successful life together. On the face of it, cohabitation makes sense. We test-drive cars before we buy them. Shouldn’t we “test-drive” a relationship?
Don’t “test drive” a relationship
Despite the logic of testing a relationship and cohabitation’s growing acceptance, living together is not the fix for divorce one might suppose. There is mounting evidence that cohabitation hurts individuals and relationships. Consider, a couple who has lived together for at least a year is eight times more likely to break up than those who marry. Those who eventually marry after cohabitation, have a 33% greater likelihood of “separation or divorce.” Cohabiting couples report higher levels of depression and alcohol abuse than married couples.(5 Facts About Cohabitation You May Not Know) Uncertainty is also a greater characteristic of cohabitational relationships, which can impact their quality. (Is Marriage More Than Cohabitation? Well-Being Differences in 30 European Countries)
Cohabitation doesn’t only affect consenting adults. It wreaks havoc on the lives of children. As the number of cohabiting unions increase, the number of children living in cohabiting households also increases. As of 2000, 41% of households with cohabiting adults contained children under the age of 18. Three-fourths of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents end their relationship before their sixteenth birthday. The outcomes for these children resemble those for children of divorced and single parents. Children of cohabiting parents have more emotional and behavior problems as well as diminished educational outcomes. Children living with their mother and a cohabiting adult likewise have more behavioral problems and lower academic performance. Surprisingly, outcomes for children of cohabiting parents are worse than those for children from single-parent households.(Family Structure and Child Well-Being) Poverty is also an issue for children with a cohabiting parent. Children from cohabiting households fare less well economically than children from intact families. The poverty rate for children living with cohabiting adults is 31% compared to 6% for children with married parents. Finally, many researchers believe that the growing incidence of child abuse in recent years may even be related to increased cohabitation in society as children in cohabiting households experience higher levels of child abuse than children from intact families. (National Marriage Project)
The thing is, relationships aren’t cars and people aren’t consumer goods. When you “test drive” a relationship, the focus is on how the other person measures up. A relationship based on that thinking becomes a short-term lease. A longtime marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, tells us that successful marriages are based on qualities individuals purposefully choose to bring to a relationship, qualities like kindness and generosity, friendship, respect and appreciation, as well as those they choose to avoid, like contempt and criticism. (Masters of Love) A successful marriage is about a couple committing to being the kind of people that makes a marriage last. And children? Don’t take them on that test-drive. There are no seat belts that protect from that kind of damage.
In the 1980’s, the Ad Council began a series of public service announcements that declared, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” We were told to speak up and save lives. Well, it’s time to speak up when friends and family choose to cohabit. They need to beware. They need to know the bad track record, the failed relationships, the injured children. They need to be warned: “Danger ahead: Cohabitation. Steer clear of wreckage.” They need to know the choice is theirs to be the kind of person that makes marriage work. Make the case and help them join Dale and Alice on the only sure road to a happy, lasting marriage.
Lauren Buchan is a student at BYU-Idaho. She will be graduating in December 2015 with a degree in Marriage and Family Studies. She was born and raised in Charlotte, NC. She has been married since 2009. She and her husband share their home with two spoiled and loved dogs, Hiro and Lee.
Victoria Black is a student at BYU-Idaho majoring in Marriage and Family Studies. She lives in the great state of Texas. She has been married to her husband, Rob, for 32 years. She has three daughters, four grandchildren, and one 90 lb. Lab named Rusty.