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Rutgers project gives idea of cohabitation, marriage

Published on -5/13/2013, 9:27 AM

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This is the third in a series about understanding cohabitation and its relationship to marriage and divorce.

Q: What are the comprehensive results from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University?

A: The National Marriage Project is an interdisciplinary initiative privately funded and associated with Rutgers State University. Authors David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead conducted a comprehensive review of contemporary research. The authors reported on available research and then attempted to offer principles for young adults to help them make decisions about whether to live together.

Cohabitation has become more significant because it has such widespread acceptance. Keeping in mind before 1970 cohabitation was illegal, today the prevailing viewpoint supports cohabiting as a progressive approach to intimate relationships. It is believed to be helpful to prepare couples for marriage and thus to help reduce the number of divorces. However, social science research conclusions do not support these assumptions.

Cohabitation is not always the same process for different couples. For those persons who move in together after engagement or premarital commitment, cohabitation does not have an adverse effect on their marriage that follows living together. There are a couple of qualifying factors that are exceptions. If persons have had prior experiences as cohabiters with others or if one or both parties have children, then the risk of adverse effects in marriage is greater.

Cohabitation with an intended partner is not the only pattern. The greatest growth in cohabitation is as an alternative to marriage. Since research documents that marriage is generally more satisfying than cohabitation, some sociologists have concerns about the growth of cohabitation as an acceptable option to marriage. Cohabiting couples report lower levels of sexual satisfaction, lower levels of sexual faithfulness, lower levels of general satisfaction, and poorer parental relationships. Several sociologists have concluded that the level of certainty in cohabitation is lower than marriage.

Not widely known among the general public is the finding that married couples have benefits not available to cohabiters. These include labor force productivity, better physical and mental health, high levels of happiness and longevity. University of Chicago demographer Linda Waite has summarized reasons why married couples have more benefits than cohabiting couples.

First, the long-term commitment in the marriage contract nurtures an emotional investment and the monitoring of one another's behavior. Longer-term commitments also make role specialization more likely. There is more sharing of social and economic resources in marriages, and thus more protection for both parties against adversities and economic downturns. Another advantage of marriage is the connection to the larger community, informally with friends, coworkers and extended families, and formally with social institutions such as churches and synagogues.

Statistics reveal cohabiting women have three times the depression of married women and are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual abuse. The National Marriage Project documented there are two basic causes for cohabitation having more problems than marriage. First is the dynamic of who chooses to cohabit and second is the nature of the relationship itself.

There are many reasons why cohabitation has grown so rapidly in such a short time. Adults marry later and thus there is an extended time of sexual activity. The sexual revolution has made cohabitation more popular because it does provide a cost savings to living alone, as well as safer sexual fulfillment. Cohabitation also provides companionship. The institution of marriage is no longer perceived as stable and as permanent. Divorce is now an acceptable alternative. The rise of feminism has contributed to the acceptance of cohabitation for women, because they are economically more independent and self-sufficient.

There also has been a generalized cultural shift from religious to secular values and traditions. This shift in culture is evident in other western societies as well as the United States. Secular values are more compatible with cohabitation.

There are demographic trends and patterns that developed historically with cohabitation. The movement began among lower class youth and moved into the middle class. Cohabiting is more common among men with lower economic status who feel they cannot support families.

Adults who cohabit are more likely to come from broken homes, divorce, high-conflict parents or homes without fathers present. They also tend to form cohabiting partnerships at young ages. With family instability and divorce in their background experiences, persons who choose to cohabit see these relationships as alternatives to marriage. There is less cost to breakups than divorces and for those who have little faith in marriage, cohabitation offers less commitment and lower expectations.

Thus, cohabitation can serve as a stage between engagement and marriage, an alternative to marriage, or an option to living alone. It offers more flexibility for single adults than marriage.

* Next week's article will continue with the effects of cohabitation on children reported by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Judy Caprez is an associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.

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