Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lavish Weddings: One Explanation for A Trend I am Concerned About

I wrote a piece for the blog of The Institute for Family Studies today, called The Silver Lining of Lavish Weddings.  In that piece, I explain my concerns about how the current trend places one more barrier between the desire for marriage and the reality of marrying for couples at lower incomes. However, I also explain why there is a theoretical reason to expect that some couples benefit from the trend in terms of motivation to succeed in marriage, and that the growing trend could be one of the results of insecurity people now have about marriage. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Complex Risks Associated With Cohabitation

Re-post of my article from last week at The Institute for Family Studies

* * *

            In my first piece on Arielle Kuperberg’s study on cohabitation that got so much media attention, I focused on broad conceptual issues. In this piece, I am going to focus on more technical matters. While I remain impressed with aspects of Kuperberg’s study, I have concerns about some of the conclusions that can be drawn from the work. To recap, she showed that some of the risk of cohabiting is related to the age at which partners move in together, with those beginning to cohabit at a young age (just like those marrying at a young age) being at a higher risk for divorcing the partner with whom they cohabited prior to marriage. That’s an important finding, but I do not believe that it explains everything that is associated with risk in some patterns of relationship development that are associated with cohabitation before marriage. 

To Whom Do the Findings Apply?
            Kuperberg focused on a large sample that has many strengths for assessing outcomes related to divorce. At the end of the day, her analyses tell us about people who married their cohabiting partners, and whether or not that marriage was more or less likely to end based on a history of cohabiting together prior to marriage. By premarital, she means with a specific partner. Her main findings—and the media headlines—are not directly related to other patterns of risk, such as serial cohabitation or having an unplanned child together while cohabiting—all of which are “premarital” in that they are before one marries. Since cohabiting couples are decreasingly likely to eventually marry,[i] Kuperberg’s main findings really focus on the increasingly select group who marries, either with or without cohabiting first, without much else going on to complicate life before marriage. As others have noted (e.g., Laura Tach and Sarah Halpern-Meekin, 2009[ii]), unmarried and premarital cohabitation has become a heterogeneous phenomenon with many complex manifestations. I believe that part of the complexity lies in the fact that there are substantially interrelated pathways of risk.
            A colleague of mine likened Kuperberg’s main conclusion, that cohabitation before marriage is not risky regarding the odds of divorce, as similar to concluding that, among those who are super fit and exercise a lot, eating less healthy food has almost no consequence. I’m not a nutritionist, but I know people who are super fit who can eat about anything and they are not going to imperil their health to the same degree as others who are less fit. They burn it all up. I am not saying that cohabitation is junk food. I’m focusing on relative risk: this analogy is apt in that there is a lot of evidence that the pathways associated with some patterns of cohabitation are, indeed, riskier than other pathways. Some people are not at greater risk, and any individual’s risk level is related to a mix of variables that includes personal characteristics, background, socio-economic disadvantage, and, as I argue below, behaviors that increase risk.
            We should not, therefore, be surprised to find that those who are on a lower-risk pathway (for example, as Kuperberg suggests, those who cohabit at age 23 years or later), are at lower risk of divorce. But there are other pathways of cohabiting prior to marriage that many people travel, such as cohabiting before reaching clarity about any commitment to the future, cohabiting with multiple partners, and having an unplanned child in a low-commitment cohabiting relationship. (Cohabitation leads to increased odds of unplanned births.) As a scientist oriented toward risk prevention, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about people who are already on a lower-risk pathway. I’m worried about everyone else and what we convey to them publicly about what the literature shows.

What About Marital and Relationship Quality?
            While the sample Kuperberg uses has massive strengths, since it is large and representative of the U.S., her analyses are limited to the outcome of divorce. That’s fair. I think divorce is the single most important outcome that tells you how a marriage goes. But divorce is not the same as marital quality or, more specifically, marital happiness—another important outcome.
            In our research (with my colleagues Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman), we examine marital quality in addition to divorce. We predicted long ago that those who wait until either marriage or engagement to live together should be at lower risk in marriage than those who cohabit prior to achieving clarity about a commitment to the future. The premise here is based on what we call the inertia of cohabitation[iii]: it is harder to break up when cohabiting than it is to break up when dating but not sharing a single address. I’m not saying that cohabiting couples do not break up; they do all the time. But how can it not be harder to break up when sharing a single address than when you have your own place? I can imagine plenty of situations where people with different advantages and disadvantages are at greater or lesser risk from inertia, but I cannot fathom how the inertia of cohabiting is not greater than dating, on average, for just about everyone.
            Here’s the risk. Many couples move in together before having any clear and mutual commitment to the future. Therefore, some people make it harder to break up with their partner before they have settled the question of if they really are planning a future with this person. Is everyone who cohabits without clear commitment about the future at an elevated risk of divorce or an unhappy marriage? I do not think so. For example, I think there are plenty of people who begin to cohabit without having clarified any future path with their partner who do fine because they land with someone who is a good partner for them anyway—very often, with the same person they would have ended up with if they had been more cautious. But, on average, the group with higher risk should be those who cohabit prior to attaining mutual clarity about commitment because therein lies a subgroup who is at increased risk for marrying someone they would not had married if they had never moved in together. And some of the couples who do not marry will, nevertheless, be together longer because of cohabitation, thereby  increasing their odds of having an unplanned child together, which puts both their child and their own future marriages at risk. In other cases, people burn two or three years with someone they might have broken up with and moved on from after 1 year without cohabitation. There is an opportunity cost in that.
            Based on this theory about inertia, we have tested and shown (in study after study) that cohabiting prior to marriage or making clear plans for marriage is associated with less happiness and more negativity in marriage. These ideas are consistent with the central advice Kuperberg gives in her paper: she suggests that people who move in young are at increased odds of making a poor choice in their partner, which, in turn, makes divorce more likely.  
Norval Glenn, the famed sociologist of the family who passed on a few years ago, termed this inertia-related risk “premature entanglement.[iv]” His central focus was how premature entanglement shortens a person’s search for the best mate they may have otherwise obtained. If the average person thinks they can get around the fact that cohabitation makes it harder to break up, all other things being equal, they may be kidding themselves. For some, the increased risk may be marginal or negligible. For others, it is life-altering. My colleague Galena Rhoades and I like to recommend that people consider lower-cost ways to figure out whether a person is the right partner for marriage—ways that do not make it harder to break up even as you’re trying to figure out if a future makes sense.
In one of our recent papers, Galena Rhoades explained a type of risk that is unrecognized by some couples until they experience it while living together.[v] In this paper, which included some of the most sophisticated analyses we’ve ever conducted on how couples change when they cohabit (controlling, powerfully, for selection by examining within-person changes), she noted that, for many couples, cohabitation combines two different developmental tasks in one period of time. First, consistent with what I just noted above about inertia, many (and likely most) cohabiting couples start living together before having clarified their plans for the future. So even as they live together, they must grapple with the big question about the future—which, when settled for a couple, provides immense benefits to relationship quality because a clear sense of a future together changes how people treat one another in the present. But for many couples beginning to cohabit, this is anything but settled. Second, moving in together involves changes in routines, roles, and expectations—just as in marriage. (Kuperberg likewise discusses the potential issues that arise when taking on new roles.)
When we recognize that many couples are experiencing two challenging developmental stages at once as they move in together, it is perhaps no wonder that we find that, after beginning to cohabit, couples’ negative communication rises sharply, and both relationship satisfaction and the perceived likelihood of marriage go down. Further, the type of constraints that make it harder to break up take a large jump and start to grow faster, and the type of commitment (dedication) most associated with having a high-quality relationship levels off.
My key point here is that relationship quality matters, and studies that focus on the risk for divorce tell an important, but incomplete story. A lot of dimensions of a relationship are impacted by cohabiting, with numerous implications for eventual marital quality (and divorce).

Kuperberg’s Study Does Not Examine Mechanisms of Risk

Kuperberg’s study is not designed to examine specific mechanisms of risk in how relationships unfold. Here is a partial list of what my colleagues and I think a lot about when it comes to mechanisms of risk. Not all of them are specific to cohabitation (references provided as examples).
·       Cohabitation can create inertia causing couples to remain together prior to making a clear and mutual decision to be together in marriage.[vi] This is why we believe that cohabiting before a clear, settled commitment to marriage is more risky than waiting until either after marriage or after having mutual, public plans to marry.[vii]
·       Sex too soon can lead to cohabitation too soon, perhaps leading to greater odds of remaining with a partner one would otherwise not have remained with, or remained with for as long.[viii]
·       Some (maybe a lot) of the risk for divorce and lower marital happiness associated with premarital cohabitation is driven by non-marital births in the cohabiting population, with the risk being especially strong for premarital births with the marital partner (these associations are stronger for white women than black or Hispanic women).[ix]
·       Early sexual connection may create relationships in which couples make key decisions about the future before other aspects of the relationship have fully developed.[x]
·       Moving in together at a younger age (or marrying, for that matter) is associated with increased risk for divorce.[xi]

Everything I just listed reflects something about relationship transitions that can alter one’s future options. Different researchers will focus on different risks, but I think all of these risks are in a similar basket—including the variable Kuperberg proposes as mattering the most (young age at co-residence). They all can be seen as involving “sliding” through important, potentially life-altering transitions, rather than making deliberate, adequately informed decisions about them after settling other important matters for the individual or the couple.[xii] I think sliding through such transitions is now a defining feature of how we do romantic relationships before marriage in the U.S. In essence, this means people are routinely getting the most valuable information about the prospects of a relationship after they have already forfeited alternate options. Further, measuring any of these patterns that may reflect this generic risk factor can make it harder to detect others in social science because the overlapping variance is so great among all the things on this list.  
Kuperberg does not directly examine these various pathways of risk except for age at co-residence, though many of these things I just listed are intertwined with—or intensified in—cohabitation that occurs prior to marriage (with the future spouse or with other partners). In Kuperberg’s study, the variables most closely aligned with what I’d consider mechanism of risk are entered as “demographic” control variables. Not all her analyses use controls, but where she does, Kuperberg includes variables such as age at co-residence (or age at marriage, depending), education, race/ethnicity, family stability growing up, if one grew up religious or not, if one had previously cohabited with someone other than the mate (serial cohabitation), if the couple had moved in together while expecting a baby, and if there had been any birth prior to cohabiting (within the relationship or from a prior one).  
To me, three of these things are not like the others: the last three. I would not classify them as mere demographic controls. I see them as behaviors associated with mechanisms of risk. Another colleague noted that these are really demographic events rather than demographic control variables. They are choices that affect one’s odds of achieving stable and lasting love in marriage or otherwise. The debate, of course, is in how much control a person really has, and I fully accept that some people have a lot less ability to control some of these things in their lives than others. There is certainly a lot of selection involved, but unless you have a highly deterministic view of human behavior (and many do), it seems wiser not to control for things that are highly interrelated with your predictor (cohabitation) as you examine a specific outcome like divorce. Of course, if you do use a lot of controls that involve complex patterns of risk, then the conclusion you want others to draw from your findings should be tightly specified so that the average person does not draw the wrong conclusion.
In essence, Kuperberg was able to show a reduction in the risk of divorce after cohabitation by controlling for age at co-residence instead of age at marriage. However, even in this aspect of her study, she shows that, for every age, those who cohabited before marriage were still more likely to divorce (at least, this is how I would interpret Figures 3 and 4 in her paper). She further reduces the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce by introducing the “demographic controls” noted above, but as I just explained, I think this amounts to controlling for the types of risk deeply intertwined with cohabitation in a study that will be understood as suggesting cohabitation does not matter. Not all of her analyses use the extensive list of control variables, however, and I think her finding that age of co-residence matters for marital outcomes makes a lot of sense.
There are some people who are not in any way at greater risk for divorce or lower marital happiness because they cohabited before marriage. But there is a rich set of interrelated risk behaviors—the ones I listed above—that reflect a more complex story about cohabitation than what the average person could have taken away from the media coverage of Kuperberg’s study. I think we need to keep trying our best, as social scientists, to make sure people can accurately see how various romantic patterns can bend the whole curve of their future possibilities in life. Where there is a complex story, we should try hard to tell it, despite the limitations of our sound-bite world.       

[i] Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217. 

[ii] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.

[iii] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

[iv] Glenn, N. D. (2002). A plea for greater concern about the quality of marital matching. In A. J. Hawkins, L. D. Wardle, and D. O. Coolidge (Eds.), Revitalizing the institution of marriage for the twenty-first century: An agenda for strengthening marriage (pp. 45-58). Westport, CT: Praeger.

[v] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358.

[vi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.;

[vii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.

[viii] Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012).  The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 708 – 725.

[ix] Tach, L., & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2009). How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality? Journal of Marriage & Family, 71(2), 298-317.

[x] Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or Restraint? The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 766-774.

[xi] Kuperberg, A. (2014). Age at coresidence, premarital cohabitation, and marriage dissolution: 1985-2009. Journal of Marriage & Family, 76(2), 352-369.; regarding age at marriage, see Raley, R. K., & Bumpass, L. (2003).  The topography of the divorce plateau: Levels and trends in union stability in the United States after 1980.  Demographic Research, 8, 245-260.; Teachman, J. D. (2002). Stability across cohorts in divorce risk factors. Demography, 39, 331–351.

[xii] If you want to read more about this risk model, there is a chapter available for download. See page 28 and following, where it says “Our work on transition and risk.” Stanley, S. M., & Rhoades, G. K. (2009). Marriages at risk: Relationship formation and opportunities for relationship education. In H. Benson and S. Callan (Eds.), What works in relationship education: Lessons from academics and service deliverers in the United States and Europe (pp. 21 - 44). Doha, Qatar: Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development. ; For the original finding that couples more often slide into cohabitation than deliberate about what it all means, see:  Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2005).  Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 989 - 1002.;  For our initial paper that details how we see inertia and sliding mixing together to create added risk for some people, see: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bride Not-to-Be Keeps 53K Diamond Ring

A man broke up with his fiancĂ©--by text message.  A judge ruled that his fiancĂ© could keep the engagement ring because he also texted "Plus you get a $50,000 parting ring. Enough for a down payment on a house."

Seems to me that she should have gotten to keep the ring regardless of him having texted that little bit extra.  That's how it used to work, anyway. The ring was a promise. If you don't follow through, you give up the ring.

You can read the basic story here.  Of course, also in the news, Johnny Depp has been wearing an engagement ring.

I wrote in the past about the interesting history of engagement rings and then took it further to consider why such customs exist (or existed more in the past) and the issues involved for men and women.  There are a couple of pretty interesting posts on this if you are interested.  Here.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Complex Risks Associated with Cohabitation

My second major piece following up on all the recent media attention on the study about premarital cohabitation by Arielle Kuperberg is now up at the Institute for Family Studies Website. You can find it by clicking right here

In the second piece, I discuss who Kuperberg's findings most clearly pertain to and how other complex patterns of risk associated with cohabitation are dealt with only indirectly within her methods. Kuperberg has an important finding about age at co-residence. In my new piece, I go deeper into methodological issues related to risks that her main finding does not really address--especially as it was picked up in our sound-bite media world.

Like the last one, the new piece is detailed.  So, if you are into the deeper dive, have at it.

Stay groovy. 


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Updated Listing of my Blog Articles

I have recently updated the file that lists all my blog articles by theme. Say you are interested in my articles on commitment? They are all grouped together in this file. Or, perhaps you are interested in cohabitation? Same. They are grouped together.

Maybe you like my quirkier articles on things like DTRs or hooking up or extra-dyadic sex (cheating) or behavioral economics in romantic relationships or my series on oxytocin or thoughts on how market dynamics impact sexual behavior (hint: I am not referring here to the Dow Jones Industrial Average). You get the idea. And, of course, there are also the occasional, heavier policy oriented pieces on things like relationship education.

If you are interested in an organized list, complete with working, click-able links right to the various articles, the updated list can be reached right here.   

Stay groovy.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Play Gone Cold

I felt sad to hear about the impending divorce of Chris Martin (of the group Cold Play) and Gwyneth Paltrow of Hollywood fame. This is a typical reaction for me when I hear of celebrity couples splitting up, especially if I have found anything I personally like about them in their history. There seem to be so few high profile, media-star couples who go the distance. When such a couple who has made it 10 years decides to end their marriage, it is news. It is, of course, also news when a celebrity couple divorces after a few months but those divorces seem like something different—reflecting relationships that were not well founded in the first place. But I do root for the long-time marriages of celebrity couples.
            Why would I care? Part of it is that I have some empathy for the fact that there is a real couple involved in something very public who is going through some immense pain. But I also care because a very public divorce must reinforce the overall image that many people have of marriages being unstable. People are already quite skittish about marriage as an institution even though when people make good choices for mates and strong commitments in marriage, there are vast benefits in life for both the adults and their children.
            As I heard the news this week about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, I was reminded of a study I had wanted to write about last year. To my point just above, there is some evidence that divorce is contagious. Researchers (headed up by Rose McDermott of Brown University) recently analyzed the social networks of participants in the long-term, near legend, Framingham Heart Study. As summarized in a really clear write-up by Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center, “Overall, they found that the divorce of a friend or close relative significantly increased the probability of divorce.”
            Thus, the famous Framingham Study sheds light on problems of the heart in more than the originally intended manner. Divorce is catching and, while Paltrow and Martin are not likely in the social networks of most people, people will be affected because they are so well known. They do not ask for this to be so, especially when they are going through their own private and public pain, but there simply must be some ripple effect when celebrity couples divorce. Well known married couples must necessarily have well known divorces—and this likely has effects similar to what Rose McDermott and colleagues found in their study.  
            There is one other thing that caught my attention about all this is the terminology used to announce the divorce. Gwyneth Paltrow wrote of the divorce on her website by using a phrase that has gotten considerable media attention this week: “Conscious Uncoupling.” I believe this refers to a specific program for helping divorcing couples. I know nothing of this particular phrase or the program that may be associated with it, and I certainly have no opinion of the associated services. However, the phrase reminded me of a growing movement around the U.S. wherein people of various backgrounds (liberal and conservative) are working to help couples with children, cohabiting or married, who are splitting up to end their romantic relationships in ways that cause the least amount of negative consequences for their children. In fact, the various efforts go beyond this simple goal to parenting after break-up.
            The term I hear frequently by those working in this area is co-parenting: they are emphasizing ongoing, effective “co-parenting” among partners who have broken apart.  So, I took some added notice that Gwyneth Paltrow emphasized the phrase “uncouple and coparent” in her message on her website. She is showing her awareness of exactly this transition and the importance to their children.
            Whatever this growing effort around the U.S. becomes, there is an emphasis on helping couples who are no longer going to be romantically joined together to work on the fact that they will be joined as parents indefinitely. It seems to me that these efforts are not so much embracing divorce as they are accepting the reality that children need their parents to work together as co-parents, whether or not they remain together as partners. Such efforts may grow to importance well beyond the obvious need for married couples who are divorcing. There is an increasing number of couples with children who will break up absent of having developed any prior, strong commitment to raise a child together. Many of these couples are going to need help co-parenting together, and that work will be hard for a lot of them. I think this is why I hear and see so much evidence of a growing movement. There is a lot of work to be done. Conscious or not, we’ve got a lot of uncoupling to cope with as a society.

[For those more interested, Daily Beast has an article where they try to get into a little more where the term conscious uncoupling comes from.]

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Time to “Go ahead and shack up”?

[Re-post of my article available at Institute for Family Studies.]
            Cohabitation is trending big in the news once again. Did you hear? Let’s talk about the news and what it means. Here are just a few of the headlines based on a study, just out.

            Go ahead and shack up

            My personal favorite is the first one, but the most curious headline, to me, is the second. I’d think you should want to tell both father and your mother the good news. And what parent does not love to hear about the latest in social science findings from their children?

            I have a multiple-choice question for you.    

Which message below do you think is the closest to what the average person took away from these headlines and stories?

            A. There is no risk to living with someone before you marry.
            B. There is no added risk for divorce in a marriage if you lived with your future mate before marrying.
            C. People who only ever cohabited with the person they marry, after having mutually clarified plans for marriage, are at no greater risk for divorce or lower marital happiness than those who wait until marriage to live together. 

            Got your answer? If you are paying close attention to the headlines, you may have picked answer B. I will give you half credit if you did; but only half credit because I think answer A is the best answer to the question I asked. However, those who have been reading the media stories carefully may well have gotten the message in answer B. If you know a lot of research on cohabitation, you might have picked answer C. But that was a trick answer. Sorry about that. Answer C is close to what I’d say is a correct answer if I’d asked you what the research shows about cohabiting prior to marriage—but that is not the question that I asked.
            I think most people absorbing some aspect of these stories (and all those like them) would have gotten the message that there are no risks to cohabiting. Can I prove that this is what the average person took away? Not really. It would be a fascinating research project to test what people concluded from the media buzz. But if I’m on a limb in this, it seems like a pretty safe one to me. Of the stories I link to above, I think the third one does give important and interesting nuances, particularly later in the piece. I do not think you have to agree with me about what the average person might have understood from these recent stories to consider other points I’ll make here about various risks associated with some patterns of cohabiting before marriage.
            The headlines above were sparked by a study just published in the Journal for Marriage and Family. The study’s author is Arielle Kuperberg of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her bio says one of her interests is “examining (and sometimes overturning) modern day myths about romantic relationships.” I would say that her purported findings are consistent with this professional interest.  
            Here are some quotes from that third story I linked to above:

New research finds that premarital cohabitation isn't linked with divorce at all.

            Arielle Kuperberg, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, finds that when accounting for the age of moving in together, there is no difference in divorce rates between cohabiters and those who moved in after marriage.

            "Cohabitation does not cause divorce — yay," Kuperberg told Live Science, adding the exclamation because about two-thirds of new marriages in the United States start with cohabitation.
            I like aspects of Kuperberg’s study. It is novel and clever. In analyzing the risk for divorce associated with cohabiting prior to marriage, Kuperberg focused on the age that people moved in together rather than the age at which people marry, finding that the former is more important than the latter in understanding divorce risk. When she controls for the age people were when they moved in with their partners, the association between cohabiting prior to marriage and divorce gets weaker than it otherwise seems to be. In some analyses, she adds enough control variables to reduce the association to zero, which is the basis of her asserting in the media that there is no risk for divorce based on cohabiting prior to marriage. If that sounds pretty technical, that’s because it is. That is as technical as I am going to get in this piece. (I plan to write another more technical comment on her study soon, where I will describe what I like and what I am concerned about in her statistical procedures.)
            At the heart of it, Kuperberg asserts that scores of researchers have had it wrong for decades, and that maybe there never has been an association between cohabiting before marriage and divorce. She asserts that what was misunderstood all these years is that cohabiters are more likely to divorce, not because they cohabited, but because they tended to start living together when they were too young to either be making a wise choice in a mate or to take on the roles of marriage. This logic is akin to the well-replicated, robust finding that marrying young is associated with greater odds of divorce. Given that, why wouldn’t moving in together at a young age also be a problem? Of course it would be. Both relationship transitions (cohabitation or marriage) result in increased constraints on your options in life; I and my colleague Galena Rhoades have been arguing for a while now that it’s important to be making careful decisions when one is about to go through a transition, like cohabitation, that restricts future options.[i]
            Before I go further, I should note that social scientists do not have any control over headlines and have little control over the content of stories on their work. You can tell in some media reports that what Kuperberg was suggesting from her study was nuanced, but that does not mean that the average consumer of such headlines and stories understood a nuanced story or how cohabitation could be associated with potential risks for her or him.
            So, what’s the problem if someone did assume from the media that there is no risk for cohabiting prior to marriage, in a pretty general, non-nuanced way? Consider the following research findings—findings based on many excellent studies:
·       Serial cohabitation is associated with greater risk for divorce.[ii] In this context, serial cohabitation means living with more than one partner before marrying. Cohabiting with more than just the person you end up marrying is associated with poorer outcomes in marriage.[iii]

·       Cohabiting unions are decreasingly likely to end in marriage.[iv]

·       Cohabiting with your eventual mate before having clear, mutual plans for marriage is associated with lower marital satisfaction and higher risk for divorce.[v] Among those who are currently cohabiting, those with clear plans for marriage have stronger relationships.[vi]

·       Cohabiting before having a mutual and clear intention to marry is on the rise.[vii]

·       The rate of unplanned pregnancies is much greater among unmarried, cohabiting women than it is among married women.[viii]

·       The transition into living together is associated with sharply increasing constraints of the sort that make it harder to break-up, yet the kind of commitment (dedication) that is most strongly associated with happy, strong relationships levels off.[ix]

·       Having sex earlier in a relationship is associated with lower marital quality, partly because moving quickly to sex is associated with moving quickly to cohabiting. That is, for some couples, sex too soon leads to cohabiting too soon, which can lead to a poorer foundation for a marriage.[x]  (Not sure how that could be? See the prior bullet point and think about what it may be like to get stuck in a relationship that is not as good a fit for you as one you might have ended up in if you’d not made it harder to break up by cohabiting with your current partner.[xi])

            These are solid research findings but you should know that there are different possible explanations for them. Some aspects of risk associated with cohabitation are due to what social scientists call selection effects. Selection effects are factors that can explain why some people experience poor outcomes that appear to be associated with some behavior (for example, cohabiting) when the poor outcomes are really more associated with other characteristics in one’s life (for example, poverty). It is very clear that some of the higher risk patterns related to cohabitation are more common for people at serious economic disadvantage. For example, with poverty, one will have additional pressures to cohabit in situations where it may be extra risky. I refer you to the comments in the later part of the media story at the third link above; the research by Sharon Sassler is quite thoughtful on such issues.
            On the other hand, these findings I list above surely reflect some aspects of risk that are causal. That is, at times, a person can make a choice (like not to move in with a particular partner at a particular time) that improves their odds of eventually having a lasting, satisfying marriage—which may well be with someone other than the person they decided not to move in with. When wrestling with selection versus causality (not my topic today), it’s useful to think clearly about what a person has or does not have control over. If a person could behave differently, and choose one option over another that is on a less risky path, that behavior is causally related to the quality of life.
            Spoiler alert. I think (with important exceptions) that people can make choices that improve their odds in love and marriage if they understand what is risky and why. Kuperberg believes this also, as you shall see below, though her current work is mostly focused on the risk of partnering up at too young an age.
            Based on headlines and some stories in the media, many people may come to believe that there are no risks inherent in some patterns of cohabitation. But does that conclusion seem consistent with the findings I just listed?
            Imagine a woman, Susie, who is in her early 20s, who absorbed the message that cohabitation before marriage is not risky. Maybe she even shared this great news with her father and mother and friends. Good news is contagious, you know. She’s been in a relationship for a couple of months with a man named Jake. She likes Jake, but she isn’t quite sure if he’s right for her (as in, right for marriage and her future). Since she likes him and wants to see if this could go the distance—and she’s been reassured in her sense that cohabitation is not risky—she and Jake go ahead and move in together. Worst case, she thinks, she can use this time together to test the relationship. (By the way, that’s among the least good answers you can have for why you might live with someone.[xii])
            Now Susie and Jake are sharing a single address. They don’t take too much notice of the fact that they have now made it harder to break up even though they are far from having figured out if they have a future together. It’s just harder to break up when cohabiting compared to dating.
            Susie and Jake like each other. There is a lot of attraction and, now that they are under the same roof, there is a lot of sex. This is not exactly a suspenseful television show where you cannot see where the script-writer is headed. Susie and Jake have a child—a child they did not plan to have. As noted above, cohabiting couples are both less likely than in the past to eventually marry, and they are more likely than couples who have married to have a child that they did not plan on having. Susie and Jake liked each other enough to move in together, but they had not developed any kind of strong, mutual commitment to a life together, much less a commitment to raising a child together.
            After living together for two years, Susie and Jake break up. Since they were living together and have a child, the process of breaking up took a lot more time and a lot more pain than it would otherwise have taken. Of course, this is not a very unusual story. Lots of couples live together before marriage. Many of these couples move in together before there is any mutual commitment to a future, before there is any mutual commitment to raise a child together, and before even any clear discussion or decisions about what living together means.[xiii]  Now, in this context, and thinking about Susie and Jake, does it still sound like there are no risks associated with cohabiting prior to marriage?  
            This next point is pretty crucial, technically. As far as I can tell, Kuperberg’s study and conclusions do not directly address the type of situation I just described with Susie and Jake. Her analysis is focused on couples who married and whether or not those couples had cohabited prior to marrying. But Susie and Jake’s story is also a story about cohabitation. It is also a story about cohabitation before marriage. It’s just not a story about their marriage. And it is a story about higher risk.
            Imagine that Susie had avoided moving in with Jake, perhaps because she was a little more wary about the implications of moving in with someone she had only known for two months. In fact, imagine that they do not move in together but, instead, they continue dating each other—and then they break up three months later. And they do not have a child. What do you think? Are Susie and Jake better off for not having moved in together in the first place?
            Back to Kuperberg’s study and report. As I understand her analyses, here is one way to summarize her findings: For people who only ever live with the one person they end up marrying, and who do not have a child prior to cohabiting, and who wait to cohabit or marry until after the age 23, the risk for divorce related to cohabiting before marriage is very low. I don’t actually believe her study supports a conclusion that is this strong, but I think it’s close to what one would conclude if you accepted all the assumptions of her work. In fact, consistent with this, she gives some advice at the conclusion of her journal article:  

            This research also suggests that young couples wishing to avoid divorce would be better served by delaying settling down and forming coresidential unions until their mid-20s when they are older and more established in their lives, goals, and careers, whether married or not at the time of coresidence, rather than avoiding premarital cohabitation altogether.  (Kuperberg, 2014, p. 368)

            You may or may not agree with this advice, but this quote from her journal article is a lot more circumspect than some of the messages that just blew through our culture over the past couple of weeks. I come back to where I started. What message do you think people absorbed with all the recent stories on the good news about cohabitation? Personally, I’d prefer there to be more caution in the wind.


If you are interested in a narrative summary of our published research on cohabitation,  it's available here.

[i] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

[ii] Lichter, D., & Qian, Z. (2008). Serial cohabitation and the marital life course. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70, 861-878.; Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754-765.

[iii] Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.

[iv] Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754-765.; Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217. 

[v] Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.; Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 – 387.

[vi] Brown, S. L. (2004). Moving from cohabitation to marriage: effects on relationship quality. Social Science Research, 33, 1-20.

[vii] Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217. 

[ix] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358.; for evidence that constraints make staying together more likely, regardless of dedication to be together, see Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.

[x] Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012).  The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 708 – 725.; see also Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or Restraint? The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 766-774.

[xi] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

[xii] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples' reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 - 258.

[xiii] Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2005).  Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 989 - 1002.;  Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.