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Shacking up can lead to higher divorce rates in some cases

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

Q. What is cohabitation, and how did it develop?

A. Cohabitation is defined as two unmarried persons living together. Historically, that has meant persons of the opposite sex. Prior to 1970, cohabitation was illegal in all states. Living together commonly was referred to as living-in-sin or shacking up, obviously negative connotations.

Cohabitors used to be the rebels, the rule breakers and the risk takers. Two or three decades ago, cohabitating first, followed by marriage, made divorce more likely than if couples did not cohabitate first. Circumstances are different today. Cohabitation has increased 1,150 percent in the last 40 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, there were 439,000 cohabitors in 1960, 2.9 million in 1990 and 5.5 million in 2000.

An article from USA Today points out contemporary research from surveys and polls. Not all cohabitation makes couples more likely to divorce. A study of 6,577 women married between 1970 and 1995, conducted by Joy Teachman from Western Washington University, showed women who cohabitated only with their husbands before marriage had no greater risk of divorce than women who did not cohabit before marriage. However, women who lived with persons other than their future husbands did have higher risks of divorce.

A study by Daniel Lichter, sociologist from Cornell University in New York, found a different result. His research revealed women who cohabited only with their future husbands had a divorce rate 28 percent lower than women who did not cohabit before marriage. (Thus, Lichter's research showed cohabiting with future husbands only produced better marital outcomes than marriage with no cohabitation.)

Lichter also found divorce rates for women who cohabited with others besides their future husbands had divorce rates twice as high as those for women who cohabited only with their future husbands. Furthermore, the couples who cohabited after engagement or after they had decided to marry did not appear to experience any negative effects in marriage.

After 1970, when cohabitation no longer was illegal, it evolved through several legal changes. Some states defined cohabitation as common law if it met certain requirements. Then came consensual sexual acts, contracts resembling prenuptial agreements and finally institutionalization. The last stage signifies cohabitation has become an accepted social and cultural institution, no longer defined as simply "not married."

However, cohabitation, unlike marriage, does not have defined legal rights. Some states still have, on the books, laws declaring cohabitation illegal. Discrimination against unmarried partners is determined on a state-by-state basis, depending on the court's interpretation of the laws. Some states do not extend fair housing practices to cohabitors. Others do offer protection to all adults -- married, cohabiting or otherwise single. Unlike divorce property rights, there are no laws about property ownership when cohabitors separate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Health Statistics released facts in 2002 about cohabitation, marriage and divorce. By age 30, 75 percent of women in this country have been married and 50 percent have cohabited. This survey studied 11,000 women ages 15 to 44.

The probability of first marriages ending in separation or divorce by the end of five years is 20 percent. The probability for cohabitors breaking up by the end of five years is 49 percent. After 10 years, probability for first marriages is 33 percent, for cohabitation 62 percent.

The study found marriage and cohabitation tend to last longer with certain conditions. These included an older age of the woman when the marriage or cohabitation began, whether the woman was raised in an intact, two-parent household, whether religion played a role in her life, whether she had a higher family income, and whether she lived in a community with high medium family incomes, low unemployment rates for men and low poverty rates.

The CDC research also found the probability of remarriage for divorced women was 54 percent by five years. The rate of remarriage for divorced women has been declining since the 1950s. In addition, second marriages have a 39 percent probability of divorce by 10 years.

* Next week's article will discuss additional facts and trends about cohabitation, marriage and divorce.

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.