Practice Makes Problems

couple poses at beach
James Collins

Living together first may weaken a marriage.

Couples who live together before marrying—who cohabit, in sociology-speak—may think that a practice marriage improves their ability to choose a life's mate. This particular social arrangement is decidedly on the rise: where 30 years ago one in ten couples cohabited, today more than half of all pairs do so.

In fact, a raft of studies have linked early cohabitation to heightened marital problems and lower satisfaction with marriage, to divorce, even to faltering religious faith. Claire Kamp Dush, a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at Penn State, and her colleagues Catherine Cohan and Paul Amato have studied cohabitation across two generations: one cohort of couples that lived together and then married between 1964 and 1980, and another between 1981 and 1997.

Social scientists have advanced two different perspectives to explain the link between cohabitation and marital quality and stability. A "selection perspective" assumes that the cohabitors differ in certain key ways from noncohabitors, and that these differences—a low level of education, being poor, having parents who divorced, and holding nontraditional attitudes toward marriage—increase the likelihood of shaky marriages and divorce. A competing and less widely supported view, the "experience of cohabitation perspective," asserts that cohabitation itself changes people in ways that undermine later marital quality and commitment.

According to data form the 2000 U.S. Census, some 5.5 million couples are currently cohabiting. Since so many more people from all walks of life are living together, Dush and her colleagues expected that present-day cohabitation would be more apt to lead to stable marriages. After studying data from interviews with 1,425 spouses nation-wide, they were surprised to learn that cohabitors in the 1981-to-1997 group were just as likely to have bad marriages and ultimately divorce as cohabitors of their parents' generation.

Why should living together lead to a troubled marriage? If, at the outset, they do not formally commit to spending a lifetime together, couples may not develop critical problem-solving skills and may put less work into providing support to their mates. According to Dush, people may choose riskier, less compatible partners in the first place, because they think cohabitation will be easier to break up than marriage. But cohabitation often leads to marriage: After a couple has lived together for several years, they share possessions, pets, perhaps children. They realize they've invested a lot of time in their relationship. Family members may pressure them to formalize their partnership.

Dush, Cohan, and Amato report their findings in the August 2003 Journal of Marriage and Family. The authors urge social researchers to integrate the "selection perspective," which scrutinizes demographic characteristics, with the "experience of cohabitation perspective" and its emphasis on the relationship processes and personal changes that may develop out of cohabitation. Dush reports that the paper has generated considerable interest—perhaps, she says, because "Many people are living together these days, and they're curious about how it's going to turn out."

Claire M. Kamp Dush, M.S., is a National Institute on Aging predoctoral fellow in human development and family studies in the College of Health and Human Development, 113 South Henderson Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3549; cmkdush@psu.edu. Catherine Cohan, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Population Research Institute, 601 Oswald Tower, 863-2939; lc18@psu.edu. Paul R. Amato, Ph.D., is professor of sociology and demography in the College of the Liberal Arts, 215 Oswald Tower, 865-8868; pxa6@psu.edu. Their analyses were based on data from the study "Marital Instability Over the Life Course" by the University of Nebraska Bureau of Sociological Research.

Last Updated May 01, 2004