Thursday, November 11, 2010


Things are changing quickly. If you consider history, the past 30 years would be just a blink, but it’s hard to fathom a period in which more changes have happened that affect how families form. The really big changes include the growing disconnection between marriage and childbirth and the growing acceptance of cohabitation as something before or instead of marriage.

I recently read a paper by one of a group of sociologists on one of the trends in cohabitation. Those researchers are Daniel Lichter, Richard Turner, and Sharon Sassler of Cornell University. That paper is entitled “National Estimates of the Rise in Serial Cohabitation” and it’s in the journal Social Science Research. These sociologists were looking at changes that are occurring in cohabitation in a very large, national data set here in the U. S. Their key focus is on the growing rise in serial cohabitation. Serial cohabitation is living with more than one partner prior to marriage (or, ever, even if one does not marry). Let me summarize the points they make that stood out to me (some points from other research they review and some from their new findings).

• More cohabiting unions now break up than end in marriage. It used to be that most cohabiting unions would end up as marriages. As the authors noted, “Cohabitation is much less tied to marriage than it was in the past – even the recent past.”

• Serial cohabitation is rapidly increasing.

• Serial cohabitation has been, and still is, more common among those at lower income levels, but it is taking off for all groups.

• Serial cohabitation is a form of “intense dating” that will lead to marriage, eventually, for many, but only after living together with a number of partners.

• Serial cohabitation is associated with a much greater risk of divorce than single instance cohabitation.

They summarize what they see in the data this way: “Cohabitation is often viewed as a stepping stone to marriage, but this view is rapidly becoming out of date.”

This is new and it is different. Things are changing again. So much so, that Lichter , Turner and Sassler think that current estimates on these types of changes lag how fast the changes really are occurring. Serial cohabitation is hot. Unfortunately, it’s also associated with things not turning out too well for people. I have to use one more quote from their paper because, to me, the statement is stunningly succinct about the implications.

On page 755, they note: “Changing patterns of mate selection – serial cohabitation, in this case – raise the specter of a growing population at risk of unintended childbearing (including multiple-partner fertility), heightened family instability, increasingly complex kin relationships, and potentially deleterious short- and long-term economic and develop- mental consequences for growing children.”

Now to be clear, good scientists (and this team of sociologists is very good) do not believe that things like serial cohabitation are causing all of what is downstream. In many ways, there are disadvantages that are there early on, such as poverty or not having parents who remain together, that cascade through life, making risks down the line greater. As just one example, if your parents never married or divorced, you are more likely to cohabit before marriage or engagement (maybe more than one time), and you are also somewhat more likely to struggle in marriage. Think of it as a series of risks that cascade through the lives of some people rather than the result of just one thing that leads to problems down the line.

Oh, did you notice the title of this post? You might have read right by it, thinking you read “cohabitating.” What I wrote is cohabiDATING. That’s my word for what these researchers are describing. Cohabitation is moving toward becoming something that’s part of the dating scene—intense dating, to be sure—and away from something that leads to marriage. Put another way, it’s becoming more part of the dating part of life than the marrying part of life.

The tricky part to me in this is always this question. What about children? I’m going to share a secret with you. Couples who are cohabiting are around each other more. Couples who are around each other more, and who do not otherwise have some beliefs that lead them to do otherwise, have more sex. And, you know what? Wait for it. I’ll say it in the most scientifically jargony way I can come up with at the moment: Net of all other variables, including selection effects, sex has a causal relationship with having babies. Put simply, sex and babies are still pretty linked even if marriage and babies are increasingly not. That makes this all matter.

Cohabitation always has been a relationship form that is more fragile than marriage. While this is true, there is a growing number of cohabiting couples having children who are functionally like married couples—they have commitment to the future and they intend and desire to raise their children together. Yet, the larger trend in things like cohabidating suggests to me that ever greater numbers of children are going to be born to couples who have not clarified a commitment (marriage or not) to a future and raising a family. Children are amazingly resilient, and many children not raised by both their parents do fine and many raised by their two parents don’t. But, on balance, it’s not a good trend when changes in family development keep trending in the direction of children being disconnected from the chance to be raised by their two parents, because that is associated with the greatest chance of the best outcomes.