Timberlake (2004) found that cohabitation had different meanings with respect to family formation, values, and cultural sanctions. They describe a continuum of attitudes, based on their study of cohabitation in sixteen industrial societies. At one end of the spectrum, cohabitation is marginal because it is culturally rejected or even penalized in these societies.
Societies with a more moderate view may accept cohabitation as a prelude to marriage but expect the legalization of marriage prior to bringing children into the home. More open cultures distinguish cohabitation as an alternative to marriage or a stage in the marital process;and at the other end of the spectrum are cultures that give total acceptance (northern European countries), where cohabitation is actually indistinguishable from marriagewith certain legal rights.
North America is moving toward the more open aspects of this continuum, where cohabitation is considered an alternative lifestyle or even alternative to marriage. In the United States, age seems to make a difference in that “older cohabiters are more likely to view their relationship as an alternative to marriage, whereas younger cohabiters view their relationship as a prelude to it” (King and Scott 2005, 271). Since 1970, we have seen an increase in cohabitation and a decrease in the social stigma associated with it (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019). In general, the more accepting a society’s attitude toward cohabitation, the more cohabitation will be defined as an alternative to marriage (Perelli-Harris and Gassen 2012).
Making the Decision to Cohabit In an effort to answer the question about why couples choose to cohabit,
Huang et al. (2011, 876) report that the primary motives for cohabiting include “spending time together, sharing expenses, and evaluating compatibility.” Many couples admittedly decide to cohabit for the convenience, companionship, and exclusive sexual relationship with a chosen partner, regardless of whether there is an intention to marry or not.
WHAT DOES LOVE HAVE TO DO WITH IT? Since the role of romantic love was addressed previously, we note only
that what distinguishes modern forms of relationship coupling from the past is the greater freedom young adults have to pursue sexual/romantic relationships without parental involvement. Marriage is no longer an economic arrangement, controlled and arranged by parents, but a participant- run system in which the concept of love drives the relationship. A decoupling of economics, sex, and commitment from marriage has led to a growing number who choose to cohabit and delay marriage (the median age for first marriage now stands at 28.1 for women and 30.5 for men, according to the
US Census Bureau). Copen et al. (2012) note, “If entry into any type of union, marriage or cohabitation, is taken into account, then the timing of a first union occurs at roughly the same point in the life course as marriage did in the past.” In other words, relationship unions occur when individuals complete education and or job-training expectations and are ready to join the workforce, while individuals have greater freedom to engage in less- committed sexual and emotional relationships allowing them to fulfill their emotional needs while completing education and job training.
WHAT DOES COMMITMENT HAVE TO DO WITH IT? By its very nature, a cohabiting relationship is one in which commitment is
ambiguous. Popenoe and Whitehead (2002) believe a high commitment ethic is necessary for marital stability, so they warn against cohabitation for that very reason. Marriage researcher and Christian therapist Scott Stanley and colleagues (2006) describe cohabiting as “relationship inertia” in which cohabiters are “sliding” rather than “deciding” on a marital partner. He concludes that men who live with women they eventually marry are not as committed to the union as those who did not live with their mates before marriage.
Smock (2000) discovered that cohabiting men and women differ in the way they conceptualize commitment. She found that women tend to perceive cohabitation as a step prior to marriage, whereas men are inclined to view cohabitation as a step prior to making a commitment. When it comes to drawbacks of cohabiting, Huang et al. (2011) found that “men [are] more concerned about loss of freedom, while women are more concerned with delays in marriage,” pointing out that gender norms about relationship intimacy govern cohabiting unions (876).
Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman (2006, 553) report that “men who cohabited with their spouse before engagement were less dedicated than men who cohabited only after engagement or not at all before marriage,” and after marriage, these husbands were “less dedicated to their wives than their wives were to them.” These researchers wonder if some couples who otherwise would not have married end up married due to what they refer to as “the inertia of cohabitation.” In other words, the couple simply remains in a relationship regardless of quality or fit. The obvious implication is that persons do not make their expectations about marriage explicit prior to cohabiting, and that becomes a problem after they marry.
In a representative sample of 1,294 unmarried individuals comparing cohabiting with noncohabiting (dating) relationships, Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman (2012, 348) found that initially “cohabiting relationships were characterized by more commitment, lower satisfaction, more negative communication, and more physical aggression than dating [noncohabiting] relationships.” These authors summarize that the transition from dating to cohabitation is declining “in most indices of relationship quality as well as in interpersonal commitment after cohabitation began, though the frequency of sex increased temporarily.”
While these studies are quite bleak when it comes to marital outcomes, a couple’s or partner’s view and understanding of a unique cohabitation agreement is certainly an important factor in whether they will end up in a stable marriage. It is probably wise to recognize that for some couples, cohabitation is an alternative to marriage and for others it is considered a stage in the relationship that leads to marriage. Johnson and colleagues (2011) describe the role that dedication and constraints play in choosing to marry after cohabiting. On the more positive side, partners may have higher levels of commitment to the relationship. On the other hand, there may be constraints that deter the dissolution of the relationship (children or a joint- owned business). Both factors influence the decision to marry after cohabiting as well as the decision to dissolve the relationship.
Does Premarital Cohabitation Lead to Marital Adjustment? Social scientists have been interested in the effects of cohabitation on the
institution of marriage since the early 1970s, when they began tracking the increasing rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. As a result of cohabitation redefining the nature of marriage and the family, the social- scientific study of cohabitation became an important aspect of family sociology.
The initial prediction by social scientists on premarital cohabitation was that it would lead to better marriages (Trost 1975). This stemmed from the idea that cohabiting would serve as a screening device that would later ensure the compatibility of prospective spouses (Danzinger 1976). It was further reasoned that cohabiters would gain experience in intimacy and
therefore develop a greater degree of relational competence necessary for an enduring and fulfilling marriage (Peterman 1975). An accumulation of research on the outcome of marriage satisfaction preceded by cohabitation has failed to support those optimistic predictions in the long term (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019; van Houdt and Poortman 2018).
However, cohabitation may be more closely related to marital satisfaction and adjustment in the first year of marriage. In the first year of marriage after cohabitation, the evidence suggests that cohabitation affords some relationship skills associated with conflict resolution. These benefits disappear around the fifth year of the marriage (Rosenfeld and Roesler 2019).
When compared to married persons, cohabiters had poorer relationships with parents and expressed lower levels of commitment and happiness with comparable married individuals. These factors also influence the dedication and decision to marry after cohabiting (Johnson, Anderson, and Aducci 2011). Kulu and Boyle (2010, 881) indicated that cohabitation prior to marriage was related to lower commitment to the partner, increased incidence of divorce, lower marital satisfaction, and higher rates of wife infidelity. Treas (2000) reported that cohabiting couples are more likely to experience infidelity, while Binstock and Arland (2003) found that cohabiting couples were more likely to separate and less likely to reconcile after a separation when compared to married couples. Aarskaug, Keizer, and Lappegard (2012) gathered a large sample of 41,760 marital and cohabiting unions across Europe and have confirmed that cohabitation is related to relationship instability in European societies. They report that “in all countries cohabiters more often had breakup plans and were less satisfied with their relationships than individuals who married” (389). These researchers further report that the differences in relationship satisfaction were greatest in those countries where cohabitation was least prevalent.
Thomson and Colella (1992) conducted some early research into the effects of cohabitation on relationship and marital satisfaction. Among the couples in their study, greater dissatisfaction in previously cohabiting marriages had more to do with the unconventional attitudes and lifestyles of these couples than the fact that they had cohabited. Individuals with more liberal social values toward premarital sex and commitment have a greater freedom to express dissatisfaction and to separate or divorce when things do not go well. However, DeMaris and MacDonald (1993) disagreed with this
conclusion, stating that “controlling for unconventionality had only a minimal impact on the cohabitation effect” (406), and they pointed out that “although family attitudes and beliefs tend to predict the attractiveness of a cohabiting lifestyle, they do not account for differences between cohabiters and non- cohabiters in instability” (399). The role of more liberal social attitudes has been included in much of the more recent research as well. Early research demonstrates that cohabitation was more constraining on those couples that married after cohabiting.
As pastors and Christians wanting to help, understanding the effects of cohabiting—both positive and negative—on later marriages may identify certain qualities that contribute to eventual marital success. It is important to understand the relationship dynamics and the challenges associated with cohabiting before marriage. However, it is also important to understand the dynamics that occur for those cohabiters who eventually marry to build a successful marriage and remain married. At this point, it may be helpful to attempt to decipher some of the more complex factors linking premarital cohabitation and eventual marital stability or instability.
In the article “Reassessing the Link between Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Instability,” Steffen Reinhold (2010) gives “some support to the thesis that the once-strong association between premarital cohabitation and marital instability has weakened over time.” Copen et al. (2012, 2) likewise surmise that although “it has been well documented that women and men who cohabit with their future spouse before first marriage are more likely to divorce than those who do not . . . recent research suggests that the association between premarital cohabitation and marital instability for first marriages has weakened over time.”
Is There a Selective Factor? Certainly there are cohabiting couples who have been successful in
forming quality marriages, so we ask the question about selective factors that might be at work. Brown et al. (2006, 454) conclude that “selection factors largely account for the deleterious effects of premarital cohabitation on marital success.” For example, certain individual characteristics (less traditional, more independent, less culturally constrained, etc.) may put some cohabiters at higher risk for marital instability. Kulik (2011, 120) found that “the noncohabiting women reported better levels of adjustment of spousal
cohesion and display of affection, and they used strategies of concession to resolve marital conflicts to a greater extent than did women who cohabited.”
Pootman and Mills (2012, 357) found that “joint investments increased as interpersonal commitment increased.” Cohabiters who have no marriage plans invest the least while couples who directly married without prior cohabitation invested the most. This research would raise the question about joint commitment in the relationship and degree of investment a couple makes in their future relationship and eventual marital success after cohabitation. Kulu and Boyle (2010, 881) agree that it is important to consider the prior commitment factor while reporting general increased incidence of divorce, lower marital satisfaction, lower commitment to the partner, and higher rates of wife infidelity.
Other researchers make the point that a single-factor explanation between premarital cohabitation and marital instability is faulty. Gender, age, and ethnicity have also played a role in the effects of cohabiting on later marriages. Phillips and Sweeney (2005) found that premarital cohabitation was positively associated with subsequent marital disruption among non- Hispanic White populations but not among non-Hispanic Black or Mexican Americans. King and Scott (2005, 271) discovered that “older cohabiters report significantly higher levels of relationship quality and stability than younger cohabiters, although they are less likely to have plans to marry their partners.”