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Cohabitation and marriage: Is there a real difference?


There is a great deal of public discussion concerning the “decline of marriage” in the media, in politics, in religious circles, and in research. The following is a portion of a research paper entitled, “Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?” by Anne-Marie Ambert. The entire paper, and many others can be viewed at http://www.vifamily.ca/library/cft/cohabitation.html.

Do couples who cohabit before marriage divorce less than others?

No, on average they divorce more, at least in Canada, the U.S., and Great Britain. The Canadian General Social Survey found that, in the 20-to-30 age group, 63% of women whose first relationship had been cohabitational had separated by 1995 compared to 33% of women who had married first (Le Bourdais et al., 2000a). The first figure included women who had cohabited and had separated before marrying their partner and others who had gone on to marry and then separate from this partner.

Overall, cohabitation before marriage seems to raise the risk of divorce later on. Wu (2000) even found that simply being married to a spouse who has previously cohabited raises one’s risk of divorcing. …

Why does cohabitation before marriage not reduce the risk of divorce?

1. A first explanation may reside in selection effects: …some individuals choose cohabitation because it does not require, in their opinion, sexual fidelity and, particularly among men, it represents a lesser commitment than marriage (Clarkberg et al., 1996). However, many of these less committed couples do move on to the next stage, which is marriage.

2. At that point, there is some evidence to the effect that the experience of a less secure, committed, and even faithful cohabitation shapes subsequent marital behaviour (Dush et al., 2003). Some couples continue to live their marriage through the perspective of the insecurity, lack of pooling of resources, low commitment level, and even lack of fidelity of their prior cohabitation. Others simply learn to accept the temporary nature of relationships (Smock and Gupta, 2002). The result is a marriage which is at risk (Wu, 2000). Furthermore, some studies actually indicate that the married who cohabited before marriage are less sexually exclusive both before and after marriage (Forste and Tanfer, 1996). And we also know that lack of sexual exclusivity is related to a higher rate of marital dissolution (Ambert, 2005c).

3. Cohan and Kleinbaum (2002) report that, in the first two years of their marriage, couples who had cohabited had somewhat less positive problem-solving behaviours and were on average less supportive of each other than those who had not cohabited. McLaughlin et al. (1992) have found that newly married couples who had cohabited before marriage had much higher rates of premarital violence than those who had not lived together. Premarital violence is in turn followed by more marital violence than when none has taken place before, and we know that domestic violence is related to divorce. As well, Magdol et al. (1998) have reported that, in a group of 21-year-olds, cohabitors were significantly more likely than daters to be abusive. Overall, entry into cohabitation raises a woman’s risk of physical abuse (GSS, 2000; Sev’er, 2002). …

4. Cohabitors are more approving of divorce as a solution to marital problems.

5. … on average, couples who cohabit are less religious than those who marry without prior cohabitation. Several studies indicate a correlation between religiosity and marital happiness as well as stability (Call and Heaton, 1997). If couples who are both less religious and less committed to each other and to the institution of marriage cohabit and then go on to marry, it is not surprising that they will have a higher divorce rate. They experience a triple risk—a phenomenon which may be particularly relevant to Quebec which is the province with the highest divorce rate (Statistics Canada, 2004).

6. Finally, there is also the possibility that, among young people who move in with their date quickly, a pattern develops that may not be conducive to stability. Quick transitions from a first or second date to cohabitation probably result in relationship instability. If the ex-partners then go on to repeat this pattern of instant and serial relationships, they may one day contract an equally quick marriage to which it will be difficult to remain faithful, thus increasing the odds of divorcing. …

How stable are cohabitations?

Quite unstable. In fact, over the recent years, cohabitations have become even less stable, in part because fewer result in marriage (Bumpass and Lu, 2000). Thus, it comes as no surprise to the reader that cohabitations are not as stable as marriages—and this is true in all western societies. Furthermore, cohabitations tend to dissolve more rapidly than marriages. More than 50% of all these unions end in dissolution within five years (Milan, 2000). …

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