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McManus - Ethics & Religion
July 30, 2008
Column # 1,405
Is Soaring Cohabitation Risky?
By Mike McManus

Census estimates that the number of unmarried heterosexual couples who are cohabiting has reached a startling 6.4 million couples in 2007. That figure is for a given month. Over a year's time perhaps 10 million couples live together while only 2.2 million marry.

According to a USATODAY/Gallup Poll, 49 percent of America said living together makes divorce less likely, 13 percent said it made no difference, while only 31 asserted divorce was more likely.

These are widely shared opinions, which is why two-thirds of those who marry today are living together, as my wife and I reported in our new book, "Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers."  However, our review of studies on the issue revealed cohabiting couples DO increase their odds of divorce compared to those who remained apart.

We quote Dr. Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan, who reviewed all of the studies published up to 2000, and came to this conclusion: "Common sense suggests that premarital cohabitation should provide an opportunity for couples to learn about each other, strengthen their bonds, and increase their chances for a successful marriage....The evidence, however, suggests just the opposite. Premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and to increase the risk of divorce...The degree of consensus about this central finding is impressive." In a 2007 interview, she confirmed her conclusion.

Yet when USA TODAY interviewed her, she said,  "The evidence is a lot more mixed."

USA TODAY quotes Dr. Jay Teachman of Western Washington University in Bellingham, who found that a woman who has lived only with her future spouse has no greater risk of divorce, while those who lived with more than one partner have a greater divorce risk.

However, Prof. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, countered, "The problem is there is no way to know that the person you are cohabiting with is your lifelong spouse until you have gotten married. The only way to guarantee that your cohabiting partner is your first spouse is to wait until you are married."

He quotes Daniel Lichter, another expert cited by USA TODAY, who wrote in 2006, that a majority of cohabitants will end up in a breakup rather than a marriage.

True.  Look at the numbers above. Some 6.4 million couples were cohabiting at any moment in 2007, but only 2.2 million married, 700,000 of whom were not cohabiting. Cohabitors had a 23% chance of marriage. Grim odds.

We quote an insightful study by Dr. Catherine Cohen and Stacy Kleinbaum who compared the marriages of those who had cohabited first, with those who had not. The couples were put into a living room setting with video cameras and were asked to seek to solve any problem in their marriage. "Those people who lived together were more negative and less positive when resolving a marital problem," said Cohen.

Even those who cohabited for just one month before marriage actually displayed poorer communication and problem-solving skills than those who did not live together. The Family Violence Research Program of the University of New Hampshire reports that cohabitors are five times more likely to experience "severe" violence compared to married couples. And women who break up with a cohabitor are 18 times more likely to be assaulted by that male, than they would be by a spouse. Many couples who cohabit say they are in a "trial marriage." That is a myth. More than eight in ten will break up either before or after the wedding, as illustrated above.

In fact, tens of millions have been diverted from marriage by cohabitation.  In 1970 there were only 21 million never-married adults.  By 2006, the figure TRIPLED to 60 million. The population only grew 48 percent.

No wonder marriage rates plunged by 50 percent since 1970!  Two-thirds of adults used to be married. Today it is only 49%.

Sadly, if cohabitants had a traditional courtship, living separately - most would be married today, usually to the first person they lived with. 

Why doesn't cohabitation work?

My wife and I have mentored cohabiting couples to prepare them for marriage. We found that most erupted into such frequent arguments, we wondered why they were getting married. However, those who we persuaded to move apart, or to stop having sex - stopped arguing, became joyful and built solid marriages.

Why? We write, "People who cohabit seem to lose respect for themselves and for their partner, while those who form a household only after marriage have inherently higher self-respect and respect for their spouse."

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