Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Stupid Way To Begin A Marriage

August 4, 1998

Suppose I told you that a certain behavior, which you believe is a stepping stone to marriage, actually results in only a slightly better than 50 percent chance of marriage. Or that same behavior actually raises your chances of divorce by 50 percent. Be honest, if you were interested in a successful marriage, you would have to admit that behavior is a stupid thing to do. Right?

That behavior is cohabitation. Half of all young adults getting married have had a living together arrangement in their life before marriage. Next to dual career marriages, cohabitation has the biggest impact on family life today. The rate of cohabiting couples has increased seven times from 1970 to 1998.

Studies have consistently shown that cohabitation makes for poorer marriages and higher rates of divorce. Instead of a stepping stone to a happy marriage, it is a stumbling block.

This divorce statistic is this high or higher for cohabitors in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Sweden and other western industrialized economies. If the marriage survives 7 years, then the divorce rate levels off and becomes equal to the rate of divorce for couples who didn't live together before marriage.

High status instead of a stigma. Living together has become a form of dating which may or may not result in engagement or marriage. The younger a person is when they engage in premarital sex, the more likely it is they will engage in a cohabiting relationship. Once sex has become a part of dating, it is a small step to cohabitation.

Living together before marriage used to be called "shacking up." Now it is cool - a rite of passage into adulthood. Instead of asking, "Who are you dating?" friends ask, "Who are you living with?" They see it as a sign of social desirability - a measure of social status. Perhaps we can trace this change of attitude to the declining influence of religion and family. Perhaps it is due to the rising influence of media glamorization of premarital sex.

What is behind the higher divorce rate of cohabiting couples?

- The bail out factor.
Cohabiting couples are a self-selected group of individuals who show a lower regard for marriage commitment by their willingness to live together in the first place. They are more willing to see divorce as a solution when there are problems in their marriage. Serial cohabitors have an 80 percent higher divorce rate once they marry.

- More affairs. As cohabitors, they are more likely to have secondary sexual partners - especially if they view their relationship as uncommitted. After marriage they are 3.3 times as likely to have an affair. Cohabitors have as much sex as married couples but they are less satisfied. Marital commitment adds to emotional satisfaction and bonding and makes sex more meaningful and rewarding.

- High risk people. Those who choose a living together arrangement are high risk individuals who are less religious, more liberal, less educated, more individualistic, and more likely to bring addiction or personality problems to the relationship. Women who cohabit are more likely to come from divorced families. The higher divorce rate reflects the fact that cohabitors are a high risk group for divorce.

- Money fights. These couples start their relationship by keeping their expenses separate. Once they marry, they have more arguments about money and have a hard time sharing their resources. Couples who don't live together before marriage generally start pooling their resources from the day of their marriage.

- Poor problem-solving skills. The biggest problem cohabiting couples have after marriage is their poor conflict resolution skill. Because of the weak commitment during cohabitation, couples learn to avoid discussing important issues. Too much trouble at that point would rock the boat. So they don't. After marriage, they continue their poor habits.

- The "glow" is gone. The average length of time of cohabitation before marriage is 1.3 years. This is the a couple’s infatuation phase of cohabitation. Their marriage begins with a period of disillusionment instead of a honeymoon period. Cohabiting couples think marriage is causing the problems when in reality, their normal adjustments of marriage aren't balanced by the normal euphoric beginning.

- Early cohabitation stops development. Most couples start cohabiting when they should be spending time developing their personalities and learning to be independent. Their developmental growth is halted by this early dependency on a relationship to meet their needs for happiness. They haven't grown up enough to take responsibility for their own happiness. This is similar to teenage couples who marry too young. They marry before their ability to give love and take responsibility is fully developed.

- More violence. Because they start cohabiting when they don't value the long term nature of the relationship, individuals show less impulse control. Cohabiting couples have a much higher rate of domestic violence. When this happens, there is a 98 percent carry-over of this violence into marriage.

Heard enough? Do you really want to be stupid about your life and take unnecessary chances with happiness? If you do, you have been forewarned - the odds are against you.

My thanks goes to Barbara Markey, N.D., Ph.D. at the Creighton Center for Marriage and Family for her excellent overview and data on the status of cohabiting couples.