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Does Cohabitation Lead to More Divorces?

Getting married without talking about it

Q: “Why did Adam and Eve have a perfect marriage?

A: He didn't have to hear about all the men she could have married, and she didn't have to hear about the way his mother cooked.” (Unknown)

Premarital cohabitation has increased significantly, and more than 70% of US couples now cohabit before marriage. The major reason supporting premarital cohabitation is that it enables the couple to get know each better and to see whether they get along well enough to embark on marriage. However, counter-intuitively, many studies have found that premarital cohabitation is associated with increased risk of divorce, a lower quality of marriage, poorer marital communication, and higher levels of domestic violence. But there are also studies (although less in number) that refute the negative correlation between premarital cohabitation and divorces.

Why is it that a phenomenon that has become so common, and whose main justification is to increase compatibility, has such disputable results?

Commitment theory distinguishes between forces that motivate connection versus forces that increase the costs of leaving. Thus, loving someone is a force that motivates us to establish a romantic connection with this person, while being already married is a force that discourages us to establish such a connection because of its high cost. Scott Stanley and his colleagues (e.g., here and here) argue that the decision to get married while cohabiting was done through a sliding (or drifting) process with hardly having any deliberative decision-making process. Thus, over one half of couples who are living together didn’t talk about it but simply slide into doing so. Such a process of sliding gives a greater relative weight to the cost (e.g., financial obligations, a shared lease, sharing a pet, pregnancy, loss of perspective on possible alternatives, embarrassment) over love, compared to the weight that such cost is given when cohabitation is absent. The perceived cost has increased but there has been no significant change in the intensity of love.

Stanley and his colleagues further argue that the reduced weight given to love is likely to become problematic after marriage, when the couple will have to face various obstacles together. It is interesting to note that the negative effects of cohabitation upon marriage are considerably reduced when cohabitation begins after engagement; that is, when the decision to marry is taken before the couple cohabits. In this case, the decision to get married takes place when the weight of cost, relative to love, was not bigger. Moreover, married couples who had started cohabiting before their engagement reported more negative communication, lower satisfaction, and more physical aggression than those who cohabited only after engagement or marriage.

Other reasons why cohabitation appears to limit the ability to reach a suitable decision on whether to get married are that cohabiting couples tend to minimize the differences between cohabitation and marriage; in particular differences concerning commitment and challenges.

Many cohabiting couples who decide to get married assume that the difference between the two is minor. This assumption is, after all, a major justification for cohabitation before marriage: it is considered to be a kind of test, in similar circumstances, of the couple's suitability for marriage. We may term this assumption the cohabitation illusion: cohabitation seems like marriage but actually it is not. It does not include all marital constraints (such as exclusivity and less freedom) and challenges (such as raising children). It appears that cohabitation is a kind of deluxe test, a test with less commitment and less challenges. One reason for the low commitment in cohabitation is that cohabitation is an ambiguous state—it is not clear yet which direction it will take and what the nature of this relationship and its obligations are. However, high commitment is associated with mutual clarity between the partners. In light of these and other differences, the couple's impression that they are getting along fine may prove illusory when the "deluxe" circumstances disappear.

When a couple enters a marital relationship after having cohabitated, their passion is not at its peak, as frequency of sexual activity declines steadily as the relationship lengthens, reaching roughly half the frequency after one year of marriage compared to the first month of marriage, and declining more gradually thereafter. If people have reached their peak of passion during cohabitation, they come to the challenging years of marriage without the drive that passion gives the relationship and that provides the energy to overcome the challenges of that they will need to face in a marital framework. It is also possible that after cohabitation, people take divorce more lightly as in cohabitation you experience and consider separation as more natural.

In contrast to the above considerations, there are scholars who emphasize the value of premarital cohabitation as a kind of "trial marriage," which enables the couple to get better acquainted with each other before committing themselves to marriage. The supporters of this theory claim that those who cohabit prior to marriage tend to have a greater risk of marital dissolution, not because they cohabited, but for other intrinsic reasons, some of which lead them to cohabit in the first place. Accordingly, once various personal characteristics are controlled for, the risks of marital dissolution for those who cohabit prior to marriage are significantly lower than for those who marry directly (here).

The dispute regarding the overall value of premarital cohabitation concerns the issue of whether the negative correlation between cohabitation and divorce (and marital quality in general) refers to process factors or selection factors. Process factors refer to the experience of cohabitation while selection factors refer to the characteristics of individuals who happen to be in cohabitation. I believe that the nature of the correlation between cohabitation and marital quality depends on both types of factors, and the interaction between these types of factors is complex and dynamic.

All the positive and negative effects mentioned here—that is, the positive learning effects of trial marriage and the negative inertia effects—are indeed present in the transition from cohabitation to marriage. However, these effects (and others) have different relative weights in different cases, and those finally determine the overall impact upon marital quality. People who live together learn more about each other; however, such living increases constraints, regardless of the intensity of love and the quality of the relationship. As a result of these effects people who cohabit will marry even if they might not do so if they had not cohabited. However, in the case of the learning effect they will do so for the right reasons—that is, reasons that will enhance the quality of their relationship; in the case of the increase in the cost of separation, the decision to marry is taken for the wrong reasons, since these are temporary reasons that have no significant value for long-term marital quality.

The above considerations do not mean that there is no cognitive value in the process of drifting, but merely that we should be aware of both the positive and negative cognitive consequences of drifting. Sometimes we make better choices without subjecting our decisions to intellectual thinking, but by just letting ourselves drift into the appropriate decision; on the other hand, sometimes drifting has negative consequences of which we should be aware.

Romantic drifting often leads to romantic compromises. It is more common to drift into compromised situations rather than to consciously and deliberately choose them in the first place. The person appears not to make choices, but to keep swimming with the stream like dead fish.

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