Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A few thoughts on Stephanie Coontz’s “The Disestablishment of Marriage”

Stephanie Coontz wrote a valuable piece on the state of marriage that was published a few days ago in the New York Times.  She talks about numerous trends in her piece, and I think it’s very much worth reading. You can read it here.

Some of you have written to ask me about the comment she makes at the end of the piece about premarital cohabitation, wherein she suggests that it is no longer associated with higher risks in marriage. I have a few brief points about that part.

1.  I think what Manning and Cohen actually found was that, among those who cohabited prior to marriage since 1995, cohabitation before marriage was no longer associated with increased risk for divorce among those who were engaged first (particularly, in the female data). This parallels what we keep finding, though it is fair to say that the finding is a bit murkier (and complex) in that paper.

2. Manning and Cohen’s study does not assess marital quality outcomes, which our research team has long predicted will be associated with the clarity two partners have about commitment to the future (especially to marriage) prior to cohabiting.  That’s because we believe that cohabiting makes it harder to break up, and that this is the detail most people seem oblvious to as they slide into cohabiting.  That matters because it can make it harder to break up before two people have decided for sure they want to be together—long-term. People can raise their odds of getting stuck in the wrong place. We consistently find, including in recent samples, that cohabiting before either engagement or marriage is associated with lower average marital quality (less happiness, poorer communication, etc.).  That, and other predictions we test, are all consistent with this theory that the greater inertia of cohabiting sneaks up on some people and keeps them in relationships they would have otherwise left before ever marrying. 

3. Coontz also notes that there is some evidence within the data Manning and Cohen analyzed suggesting that cohabitation (quoting Coontz) “with definite plans to marry at the outset is tied to lower levels of marital instability than direct entry into marriage” among disadvantaged women with high risks. In other words, cohabiting may actually be associated with doing better in marriage for some groups. This is a rare finding but there is some reason to expect it. I explained why I thought such a finding might show up in a post a while ago (it can be found in the fourth link below, which is one of my longest, most theoretical prior posts on cohabitation and marriage).  

I’m going to list a number of links to prior posts of mine for those of you who want to read more deeply about the theory and research of our team related to the types of cohabitation prior to marriage that might be riskier, and why. Some of these posts are more fun but still explain the theory well (see playlist to paylist) and others are pretty heavy duty theory and conceptual reasoning, if you are really wanting to dig in deeper on this subject. 

If you want to read a summary of our studies and theory in this area (cohabitation prior to marriage, etc.), you can download the file at the first link below. 

A long, detailed post on theory related to cohabiting, marriage, and signals ofcommitment. (Relatively heavy duty compared to other things here, and the last in a series on some bigger issues in science about selection.)

Have at it!