Cohabitation not so harmful to marriage, new studies show

A trio of studies in the May Journal of Marriage and Family may be leading indicators of a fundamental shift in how cohabitation impacts eventual marriage. It may not be as harmful as previously thought.

It has been well-established for years that cohabitation before marriage increases eventual chances of divorce. (A good-albeit-old summary of this research, including possible explanations, is here.) This has been such a clear and consistent finding, in fact, that its opposite is featured in my 2008 article as a “myth about marriage” that research has convincingly debunked.

Now, all that may be changing. A study of marriages in Australia finds that the gap between cohabiting couples and non-cohabitors in later risk of divorce has been shrinking as cohabitation has become more common. The correlation may even have flipped. In one of the study’s predictive models, for couples married since about 1987, non-cohabitors have been more likely to eventually separate than those who cohabited prior to marriage. (In the study’s other predictive model, the lines have not yet crossed, but since the late 1990s there has been essentially no difference between cohabitors and non-cohabitors in risk of separation.)

There’s more. A separate national (US) study examining marital quality rather than simply separation looked at nearly 4,000 women born between 1957 and 1965. The authors found that

The negative correlation between premarital cohabitation and marital quality is largely driven by the nonmarital parents in the cohabiting population. […] Furthermore, marital quality is “locked in” at the start of marriage, with lower quality marriages neither catching up nor deteriorating more rapidly than others. (p. 313, emphasis mine)

In order to put meaning to these numbers, it is important to understand how couples today are looking at marriage and cohabitation. That’s exactly the purpose of a third study in the journal, titled “The Social Construction of Marital Commitment.” The researcher interviewed 75 women and men between ages 28 and 35, most in New York state. Based on their own descriptions, participants’ commitment to marriage was made of two parts: How they saw marriage as a “life style option” that had value compared with other options like cohabitation, and how (or whether) they saw themselves actually achieving married status. Speaking to the first element (value), most of those who were not in a relationship “were reluctant to assign a value to marital commitment that distinguished it from other forms of attachment” (p. 324, emphasis mine). Even among those who did place value on marriage, there appeared to be varying degrees of belief that the kind of marriage they envisioned was actually achievable.

Together, these three articles show in stark relief just how out-of-date our knowledge about marriage could be. Mind you, it’s not that we haven’t been doing the work. Rather, it appears that generational shifts in both attitudes and behavior toward marriage have been occurring much more rapidly than we’ve been able to effectively monitor. I wonder how many more of those supposed myths about marriage may be shifting to truth, and how long it would take for those shifts to be detected.

Myths about marriage

Based on current research, which of the following statements do you think is true?

  • Single people are at greater risk of violence than married people.
  • College-educated women are more likely to get married than women with less education.
  • Married people have more sex than single people, and find their sex lives more emotionally satisfying than single people find theirs to be.

(The answer is at the bottom of this post.) I’m lead author on a study in the Oct-Dec 2008 American Journal of Family Therapy on the subject of myths about marriage. Based on a survey of more than 200 marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in California, we as a profession are not as up-to-date on things as we probably should be: The average MFT correctly identified less than 10 myths out of 21. On some items — including the first two items above — less than one in ten MFTs got the answer right.

We are an older profession demographically. The average age of respondents in the survey was above 50. And, in decades of practice, the research underlying what we do advances far beyond what we were taught in graduate school. It can be difficult to keep up with all of these advances in the midst of a full-time job seeing clients, and this is why most states mandate that we receive continuing education; in California, we’re required to complete 36 hours of CE every two years.

I came away from this study wondering about two things: One, what we can do better to keep therapists informed of research advances? Members of AAMFT get the association’s magazine and its journal, both of which provide up-to-date information on the best research in the field. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of California MFTs are members. Are there other, better ways to get the word out when science advances? And two, how does this impact therapy? The short answer is it may not. Especially if the therapist is using a well-manualized treatment model, it could be argued that the therapist’s understanding of research is not all that important. Still, I find it hard to believe that what a therapist thinks they know about marriage sneaks into therapy in small ways — the little nudges we give our clients through the questions we ask, the nonverbal signals we give, and the homework we assign. If I believe (incorrectly) that a child is better off in a stepfamily than in a single-parent home, might I subtly nudge a couple considering becoming a stepfamily to tie the knot before they are prepared to do so?

The current study will soon be replicated with multiple professions, to see how MFTs compare with social workers, psychologists, and professional counselors. It will be interesting to see whether one’s professional orientation makes a difference in what we think we know.

The answer, by the way: All three statements are true.