Tuesday, November 20, 2018

New online study you can participate in--if you are in 18 to 34 age range

Are you between 18 and 34?

One of the top talents in our lab, Lane Ritchie, is conducting an online study that would take about 30 minutes of your time. Please consider participating.

Here's the official description:


Are you between 18 and 34 years old? You are invited to participate in a research study about social relationships and networks (e.g., family members, friends, romantic partners). Researchers at the University of Denver are studying how social networks work, and your participation could help provide increased understanding of this important topic. 

Participation involves completing a 30-minute anonymous, online survey about your experiences and opinions. Those who complete the survey will have the option to enter a drawing for one of several $50 Starbucks gift cards. If you are interested in learning more or participating, click here: https://tinyurl.com/s0cial

For more information, you can contact the researcher, Lane Ritchie, M.A., at lane.ritchie AT du.edu.

Thank you. We'd really appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Unequally into "Us": Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships


AntonioGuillem via BigStockPhotos
Our newest journal article is out. It's about the characteristics of individuals that are associated with it being more likely to be an asymmetrically committed relationship (ACR) compared to those not in such relationships. The study focuses on a sample of unmarried adults (aged 18 to mid thirties) in seriously involved relationships. Asymmetrically committed relationships are more likely to break up (especially if the woman is the less committed partner), more likely to be unhappy, more likely to include physical aggression (by either partner), and more likely to be found in cohabiting rather than dating, but not living together, relationships.

Here are a few highlights:

Those who are the less committed partner within an asymmetrically committed relationship are more likely to:
  • perceive themselves as having good alternatives to their present relationship
  • be attachment avoidant
  • have parents who never married (but not more likely to have parents who divorced)
Those who are the more committed partner within an asymmetrically committed relationship are more likely to: 
  • have anxious attachment 
Regarding commitment and attachment, those with attachment avoidance tend to hang back and those with anxious attachment tend to hang on. These are not surprising findings but it is important to observe them not only in regarding to mere high or low commitment, but regarding being in the higher or lower position of commitment in an asymmetrical relationship. 

There are other findings covered in the paper, including about numbers of prior sexual and/or cohabiting partners, infidelity, and so forth. 

The paper covers the existing literature on ACRs pretty deeply, so it provides a great way to get a solid sense of what is known on this topic. The paper also provides suggestions for working with individuals or couples in therapy or relationship education based on the existing, and growing, literature on asymmetrical commitment. 

To read the abstract, click here.

To see me discussing the study in a "video abstract" for the The journal Family Process, click here.

For an earlier summary on this blog of our research on unequally committed relationships, and their numerous negative characteristics, click here.

If you have no way to access the entire article and want to read it, email me at my university email address, on this page.

Citation: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Kelmer, G., Scott, S. B., Markman, H. J., & Fincham, F. D. (2018). Unequally into “Us”: Characteristics of individuals in asymmetrically committed relationships. Family Process. doi: 10.1111/famp.12397. Advance online version: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/famp.12397








Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Family Transitions & Children: Trends Over 25 Years for Cohabitation and Marriage

This is among the most interesting (and lucid) reports on cohabitation, marriage, and family instability for children to come along in a while. Rackin & Gibson-Davis, just out in @JMF_NCFR.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jomf.12522

1) Transitions in home are an important predictor of child well-being. Study examines contributions to changes in number of transitions for children based on population changes in marriage and cohabitation over the past 25 years, by maternal education. Using NSFG.

2) Rackin & Gibson-Davis studied transitions (in or out of relationships) that children are exposed to (but findings are similar for transitions out, hence, instability implications).

3) There is some evidence that the number of transitions for children has finally plateaued, after going up for decades (Brown, Stykes, & Manning, 2016). But, is this because cohabitation as context for children has become more stable? Has it?

4) Findings from Rackin & Gibson-Davis: Children born to more highly educated experience far fewer transitions (1/4th as many) than children born to low and moderately educated. Moderately educated catching up to less educated.

5)  Overtime, there was an increase in number of transitions for children for both the mod and low education groups; this was driven by the huge increase in the prevalence of cohabitation vs. marriage for these groups.

6) The pace of transitions has slightly decreased, though, for cohabitation; but this is greatly offset by the increased prevalence of cohabitation. That’s a key part of what Rackin & Gibson-Davis are showing.

7) Among the highly educated, marriage has become, if anything, even more likely the context for children, and more stable over time. In fact, among the highly educated, only 7% of children born to the 2005-2010 cohort were born outside of marriages.

8) As the authors note:

“Although cohabitations among these mothers did become slightly more stable, the increased stability of cohabitation was not occurring fast enough to offset the expanded pool of children exposed to cohabitation.” (p. 13) The authors note a hope that cohabitation will eventually become more stable for children but it remains far less stable for now, and that for that to occur, “cohabitation churning would have to decrease much more rapidly than it has during the past 25 years.” (p. 14)

My take: This is an excellent study examining the intersection of SES, trends over time, and family transitions that impact children.

Cite: Rackin, H. M., & Gibson-Davis, C. M. (2018). Social class divergence in family transitions: The importance of cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and Family. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12522

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Cohabitation is Common: An Update on Trends

Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) put out a report in May on the demographics of cohabitation, with interesting contrasts among adults who are cohabiting, married, or neither. The report is based on a large, representative, national survey of U.S. adults aged 18 to 44, sampled between 2011 and 2015. To conduct the analyses, the authors (Nugent and Daugherty) selected only adults who had sexual intercourse with a partner of the opposite sex. They did that to ensure the groups were comparable in some respects regarding their histories in intimate relationships. The groups reflect those who were currently cohabiting, married, or neither at the time of being surveyed.

Cohabitation, Marriage, or Neither

The report shows that, as of 2015:  

  • 17.1% of women and 15.9% of men were cohabiting
  •  44.9% of women and 43.5% of men were married
  • 38.0% of women and 40.6% of men were unmarried, and not cohabiting
This type of data does not address pathways over time, such as how many among the current cohabiters will eventually marry or how many of those not currently residing with a partner will eventually do either or neither. However, the data do provide estimates of the number of times people in the groups had cohabited outside of marriage up to the time they were surveyed.

Sixty-seven percent (67%) of those currently married had cohabited before marriage with one or more partners.[i] Many of those currently unmarried or not cohabiting had cohabited before. Fifty-one (51.4%) of the women in that group had lived with one or more partners before, and 42.9% of the men had done likewise. Doing a little math, we estimate from the report that 64.5% of the entire sample has cohabited with a romantic partner at some point outside of marriage. That’s not the percent of people sampled who will cohabit outside of marriage at some point in their lives, though. The lifetime percent for this group would, of course, be higher. To get that number, you’d have to follow everyone in the sample until each person had either cohabited or died. That could be a long wait. (It might be that Facebook could eventually tell us those numbers.)

The data on premarital cohabitation history in this sample will be an under-estimate because the marrieds make up a higher percentage of the older people in that age range, and there is every reason to believe that the youngest, non-marrieds in the sample are more likely to cohabit prior to marriage than those who are older. Other estimates not based on this specific report are that the percentage of people living together before tying the knot is now at an all-time high of over 70%.[ii] We believe this figure will go higher still. There remain some groups, particularly the more traditionally religious, [iii] who will not live together before marriage, but otherwise, cohabitation is common and there is little stigma associated with it. 

Thus, a very high percentage of people in the U.S. cohabit outside of marriage. It is now normative behavior. Wendy Manning has estimated that, “The percentage of women ages 19-44 who have ever cohabited has increased by 82% over the past 23 years.” For those aged 30-34 in 2009-10, she has shown that 73% of women had already cohabited with someone. If you combine such numbers with the fact that, as Susan Brown has shown, there is a steady increase in cohabitation among older adults (after the death of a spouse or divorce),[iv] it is easy to imagine that the number of people who will eventually cohabit outside of marriage could reach 80%, or more.

Cohabitation has greatly increased in large measure because, while people are delaying marriage to ever greater ages, they are not delaying sex, living together, or childbearing. In fact, on the latter point, Manning noted in her recent address to the Population Association of America that almost all of the increase in non-marital births in the U.S. since 1980 has taken place in the context of cohabiting unions.

Cohabiting with more than one partner outside of marriage has also gone steadily higher.[v] The NCHS report does not demonstrate the trend, but the data reported do show that 44% of the currently-cohabiting group and 20% of the neither cohabiting nor married group has already lived with two or more partners. Ever higher levels of serial cohabitation mean that more people are on one of the pathways strongly associated with risks for family instability or divorce.[vi] Prior research has shown that serial cohabitation is strongly associated with economic disadvantage among unmarried couples, [vii] lower odds of marriage, and increased odds of poor marital outcomes, but serial cohabitation is growing rapidly among different population groups.[viii]

Increasing rates of cohabitation as well as serial cohabitation might be of no special consequence except for the point noted above, that many births now occur in cohabiting unions. Some percentage of these couples have a long-term commitment similar to marriage, but, on average, cohabiting parents are much more likely than married parents to break up, [ix] resulting in increasing odds of family instability for children. Much of this risk is due to selection, a subject we will come to below.

Other Characteristics of these Groups

Other findings from the NCHS report are consistent with the way that basic family patterns have increasingly diverged around cultural, educational, and economic lines. For example:

  • 47.9% of cohabiting women had household incomes less than 150% of the federal poverty line compared to 25.6% of married women
  • 36.1% cohabiting men had incomes less than 150% of the federal poverty line compared to 21.2% of married men
  • 25.2% cohabiting women had incomes over 300% of the federal poverty line compared to 48.1% of marrieds
  • 32.4% of cohabiting men had incomes over 300% of the federal poverty line compared to 52.4% of marrieds
This is one of the more striking examples of the fact that a lot of cohabiting women and men tend to be poor compared to married women and men. The data on education follow the same pattern, of course. Married people had the most education followed by those who are not married or cohabiting, with cohabiting people reporting lower levels of education than the other two groups. For example:

  • 25.3% of cohabiting women had a bachelor’s degree compared to 43% of married women
  • 16.2% of cohabiting men had a bachelor’s degree compared to 36.5% of married men
While the education levels of many of the cohabiters in this sample will go higher over time, the findings from many studies show that cohabitation (particularly with cohabiting relationships not leading directly to marriage) is associated with being more disadvantaged, on average.[x] The data are consistent with the story of a class divide around marriage and cohabitation.[xi]

Attitudes and Experiences

This NCHS report also presents differences in the three groups based on attitudes and experiences about unmarried sex, cohabitation, and having children outside of marriage. Not surprisingly, both of the non-married groups are less traditional in their views than those who are married. These findings are reflected in the table below from the report. [click on it to view it]

While there are clear differences, large majorities of every group believe that having and raising children without being married is fine; this is endorsed by the greatest number of cohabiters. Of course, that finding would have been quite different decades ago. Marrieds are the most disapproving of cohabitation outside of marriage, but even most of the married group agreed that it is all right to do so.

Majorities of every group also believe that living together before marriage may help prevent divorce. This is of particular interest to us given our research related to this question.[xii] The percentage believing this was highest for those currently cohabiting.

This notion has had wide acceptance since at least the mid-1990s, when three-fifths of high school students believed that, “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.”[xiii] It is worth noting that there is virtually no evidence in support of this belief. However, it is also fair to note that there used be a lot clearer evidence to the contrary.

Regardless, we believe that there is considerable evidence that some patterns of living together before marriage are associated with increased risks for less successful marriages. We do think experiences and choices matter for future outcomes. This assertion is mildly controversial among those who study cohabitation. To be sure, there is a mountain of evidence for selection in both who cohabits and who will cohabit in the riskier ways. What that means is that people who are already at greater risk for worse outcomes in relationships because of things like family background, disadvantage, or individual vulnerabilities are also more likely to do any of the following: cohabit and not marry, cohabit before having clear, mutual plans to marry, or cohabit with a number of different partners over time. There is plenty of evidence of other patterns in the NCHS report related to cohabiters being more select for various relationship risks. Consider the following findings.

Relationship Risks Associated with Cohabitation

Cohabiters were more likely (74%) than those currently married (56%) to have had sexual intercourse before the age of 18. Cohabiting women were also more likely to report ever having an unintended birth (43.5%) compared to married women (23.9%). These types of patterns are associated with life-long risk factors already present in the lives of many people. Of course, you could argue that such differences also reflect choices people make that have potentially causal, life-altering consequences. Such debates are endless, but we do not doubt a huge role for selection in all of this. And yet, we believe there often are causal elements impacting life outcomes related to the experience of cohabitation.

First, it has been shown that cumulative cohabiting experience changes peoples’ beliefs about marriage.[xiv] While that research is older, the theory behind the research is compelling. Much research shows we learn from experiences and experiences change our beliefs. We believe that the increase in cohabitation, serial cohabitation, and premarital cohabitation has led to consistent downward trends in belief that marriage is special.

Second, cohabitation makes it harder to break up, net of everything else. Because of the inertia of living together, some people get stuck longer than they otherwise would in relationships they might have left or left sooner. In fact, we believe some people marry someone they would otherwise have left because cohabitation made it too hard to move on. Inertia should be the greatest problem for couples who had not decided beforehand on their future, such as by already having mutual plans to marry (e.g., engagement) or, of course, by first marrying. While the increased risk can be modest, the prediction is consistently supported with at least seven reports using six different samples, showing that those who start cohabiting before deciding to marry report lower average marital quality and are more likely to divorce.[xv] This added risk is compounded by the fact that most couples slide into cohabiting rather than make a clear decisions about what it means and what their futures may hold.[xvi]

Third, cohabitation is increasingly a context for childbearing. Since cohabiting parental unions are relatively unstable, the increasing number of couples who break up in such unions will mean more people entering future relationships with the challenge of children in tow.

Evidence of selection abounds but so do reasons for believing that experiences and personal choices are relevant to life outcomes.

Complexity Abounds

These ever-changing patterns in relationship and family development are complex, and they do not operate in the same way for all. For example, there is research suggesting that cohabiting experiences may lead to more positive attitudes about marriage among young, African American adults. More broadly, as Sharon Sassler and Amanda Miller argue in Cohabitation Nation, there are various social class disparities that impact things like if and how soon a person will move in with a partner. Some pathways will lead to different sets of outcomes for different people, and some people have more ability (economic and personal) to avoid paths that increase the odds of poor outcomes.[xvii]


The extraordinary changes of the past four decades reflect how ordinary cohabitation has become. There is no a simple story here, only an ever-unfolding one of increasingly complex families.




[i] It cannot be determined from these data if this means that 67% would have cohabited before marriage with their spouse, but presumably, that is a reasonable estimate for those doing so.
[ii] Hemez, P. & Manning, W. D. (2017). Thirty years of change in women's premarital cohabitation experience. Family Profiles, FP-17-05. Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family & Marriage Research. That’s for the United States, but the rates are similarly high in all industrialized nations. In a recent address to the Population Association of America, I believe Manning put that number at around 75%.
[iii] There is a nuance here for this new report. The group that is excluded by the selection criteria (about having had sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex) are those in that age range who have neither married nor had sexual intercourse up to this point in their lives. Because of that, the estimate of 67% living together before marriage for this particular age range at that point in history would be a little high. We cannot say how high but do not doubt that the percent who will live together before marriage of the current generation of young adults is now over 70%.
[iv] Brown, S. L., Bulanda, J. R., & Lee, G. R. (2012). Transitions into and out of cohabitation in later life. Journal of Marriage & Family, 74(4), 774-793. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00994.x
[v] This trend is noted in the NCHS report but the report itself does not present data on that trend. The authors cite earlier studies on the increase in serial cohabitation: Cohen J, & Manning W. (2010). The relationship context of premarital serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 766 – 776.; Lichter, D. T., Turner, R.N., & Sassler S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754 – 765.
[vi] Lichter, D. T., Turner, R.N., & Sassler S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754 – 765.
[vii] Ibid Lichter et al. (2010); Lichter, D., & Qian, Z. (2008). Serial cohabitation and the marital life course. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70, 861-878.
[viii] Ibid Lichter et al. (2010).
[ix] “Only one out of three children born to cohabiting parents remains in a stable family through age 12, in contrast to nearly three out of four children born to married parents.”: Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25(2), 51–66; see also McLanahan, S., & Beck, A. N. (2010). Parental relationships in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 17-37.; McLanahan, S., & Beck, A. N. (2010). Parental relationships in fragile families. The Future of Children, 20(2), 17-37.
[x] It is important to note that this type of data also cannot distinguish between cohabiters who will transition into marriage with their current (or a future) cohabiting partner and those who will not.
[xi] See for example: Smock, P., & Greenland, F.R. (2010). Diversity in pathways to parenthood: Patterns, implications, and emerging research directions. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72, 576-593.
[xii]  If you want to dig in pretty deeply on theory and research from us on this subject, you can start here or here, and find summaries and links to many (non-gated) papers you can read if you like.
[xiii] Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage & Family, 63, 1009-1037. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.01009.x
[xiv] Axinn, W. G., and Barber, J. S. (1997). Living arrangements and family formation attitudes in early adulthood. Journal of Marriage & Family 59, 595-611.
[xv] In addition to the list of the body of studies on the marriage-plans-timing effect (partial list following, full list here), a recent study shows that relationship quality is highest (on average) for marrieds and lowest for cohabiting couples without plans to marry, with marrieds who cohabited before marriage and cohabiters who currently had plans in between those two groups: Brown, S., Manning, W. D., & Payne, K. K. (2017). Relationships quality among cohabiting versus married couples. Journal of Family Issues, 38, 1730 – 1753. (First appeared in advance online publication in 2015: https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X15622236); Examples of studies with the engagement/plans timing effect: 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 & Family, 72, 906-918.
[xvi] See Lindsay, J. M. (2000, online version came out in 2014). An ambiguous commitment: Moving into a cohabiting relationship. Journal of Family Studies, 6(1), 120-134.; Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2005).  Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data. Journal of Marriage & 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.
[xvii] For example: Sassler, S., Michelmore, K., & Qian, Z. (2018). Transitions from sexual relationships into cohabitation and beyond. Demography, 55, 511 - 534.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Marriage Starts Changing you Before Marriage


Having a long-term view supports the ability to delay gratification and invest in the future. Having a short-term view provides no reason for delay and favors immediate gratification. These points are central to understanding marriage and cohabitation, as well as how people manage money.

 A recent study examines the way financial time-horizons are impacted by relationship transitions, specifically, going from being single to cohabiting and from cohabiting to being married. Barbara Fulda and Philipp Lersch conducted their study using a large data set in Australia, motivated by this question: Is there reason to be concerned about the future financial prospects of aging Australians in a world where marriage is declining and cohabitation is increasing? It’s a good question, and their study is excellent.

Their foundational assumptions were these:

·       People with longer time-horizons about finances will save more for the future.
·       Marriage and cohabitation have implications for time-horizons, and likely impact financial behavior.

In their study, financial planning time-horizon was measured with a question that asked, “In planning your saving and spending, which of the following time periods is most important to you?” The question allowed responses ranging from “The next week” to “More than 10 years ahead,” with many options in between. Importantly, the analyses are not about actual long-term savings. Rather, they examined what happens to this planning variable across relationship transitions, with the plausible argument that changes in financial horizons would reflect something about long-term financial outcomes.

Fulda and Lersch used a variant of what economist and sociologists call (in near worshipful tones) “fixed-effects,” which I believe to be a variant of what psychologists call “within-subjects effects.” Such analyses take advantage of data sets with over-time measurements from the same individuals; in this case, to capture changes from before to after specific transitions. While such analyses do not control for all types of selection (such as who is on this path or that path in the first place), they do control for other aspect of selection. For example, individuals vary in conscientiousness, and that could impact everything of interest here. Even without conscientiousness being measured, the fixed-effects models will control for such variance because of how people are being compared to themselves over time. This gives new meaning to the phrase, “control yourself.” (Researcher humor is the best humor.) Another example of this type of thinking can be found in a paper by Galena Rhoades, myself, and Howard Markman on changes in relationships across the transition into cohabitation (see here). I’ll come back to that.

Fulda and Lersch found that cohabiting individuals had longer financial time-horizons than singles, and that financial planning horizons increased over the transition to cohabitation. There was mixed evidence of people’s financial horizons increasing further during cohabitation. In contrast, financial horizons did not increase when transitioning into marriage.

In their words, “Cohabiting individuals’ financial planning horizons thus had already increased prior to their transition into marriage.” Further, “we did not find convincing evidence for a change in the financial planning horizon before and after marriage, . . ..” That is, marriage “seems to contribute little to a longer financial planning horizon relative to cohabitation.” My quibble is on that point.

Fulda and Lersch believe the driver of the observed effects is the development (or establishment) of increased commitment during cohabitation. I think that is likely correct, but I also think the matter and meaning of the timing is more complex.   

Early in the discussion of their findings, Fulda and Lersch make an important comment.

These results can be interpreted as extending previous research on the following two distinct groups of cohabiters: Those who intend to marry and those who do not. Poortman and Mills (2012) showed that the first group resembles married couples in their partnership characteristics. In this study, we expand on this finding and show that financial planning horizons of cohabiting couples’ who eventually get married remain stable as a result of their high commitment to their relationship when they transition from cohabitation into marriage.

There are different types of cohabiting unions. Some are like marriage, many are not; some become more like marriages over time, and then turn into marriages. That’s part of why cohabitation is a more ambiguous (and heterogeneous) relationship status than marriage. This is likely somewhat less true in Australia[i] than in the United States. because of a legal system that makes cohabitation more like marriage there. Here in the United States, anyway, cohabitation contains very little information about commitment. Marriage plans, however, contain a lot of information.

Sociologist Susan Brown and colleagues havedrawn attention to the fact that cohabiting couples with plans to marry tend to be, on average, a lot like married couples (see also, this).  In a related vein, but differing in an important way, my colleague Galena Rhoades and I have found that, among couples who end up marrying, those who started cohabiting only after having clear marriage plans (such as after engagement or who move in together only after marrying) tend to do better in marriage than those who had not decided the big question about the future beforehand (for more on those studies, see here). Deciding you want a V8 ahead of time beats “I coulda had a V8” while already holding something else. (Want to take a trip through memory lane on that? Here, knock yourself out. That’s some ancient wisdom right there.)

Furthermore, we have found cohabiting prior to engagement or marriage is associated with asymmetrically committed relationships, and that such asymmetries do not appear to change after marrying. And, as I’ve written before, asymmetrical commitment is not good.

Fulda and Lersch do not, and likely could not, examine a variable that estimates the timing of when couples who married developed their mutual plans to marry. I expect that a lot of the action behind what they found lies there. In addition, while they believe that the development of commitment between partners is the most important mechanism in play, they also do not have a measure of that to analyze. Thus, the measure of financial horizon is sort of doing double duty in their thinking.

Coming back to the study noted earlier by Galena Rhoades, me, and Howard Markman, we found that commitment itself—as in dedication to one’s partner—tends to stop increasing after the transition into cohabitation. It levels off, and not at the particularly high level. Taking these points all together, Fulda and Lersch do not have a way to look at the actual timing of changes in interpersonal commitment, nor can they look at the exact timing of when mutual plans for marriage develop. It would be interesting to look at their research question with access to such measures.

To be clear, I have little doubt that financial planning can change with cohabitation. However, I suspect that Fulda and Lersch’s cohabitation-transition effects are likely, and largely, a proxy for the effect of developing marriage plans before cohabiting or while cohabiting. Either way, the effects Fulda and Lersch are attributing solely to cohabitation seem mostly to be marriage effects occurring before marriage. There is nothing nearly as re-organizing for a relationship as deciding on, and setting plans for, a life together.

Cohabitation, Marriage, and Time Horizons

I believe marriage effects start long before a couple walks down the aisle. Similar effects can occur without marriage if a mutual and high level of commitment emerges. However, marriage remains the strongest cultural signal encoding such a commitment. [ii] Sure, some institutional effects of marriage will begin with the wedding, but the wedding day typically celebrates changes in commitment that have already occurred.

Fulda and Lersch concluded that concerns about the long-term financial prospects of Australians may be overblown. Bolstering this conclusion is the fact that the laws and mores in Australia make cohabitation a near functional equivalent to marriage. I do believe it is a different deal there compared to the United States. However, there are reasons to think that long-term implications of cohabitation versus marriage may still be substantial for children, even in societies where the two statuses have become close in legal equivalence. This fact was recently documented by Brad Wilcox and Laurie DeRose with a multi-national data set.[iii]

Marriage may eventually lose its status as the strongest signal of commitment to “us with a future,” but I do not think that day has yet arrived. Until marriage disappears, marriage effects will start before marriage.



First published to the blog of the Institute for Family Studies on 4-9-2018. 


[i] As an aside, the first scholar to nail the issue of the fundamental ambiguity of cohabitation was Jo Lindsay—an Australian research doing a qualitative study on cohabitation first published in 2000 based on interviews in the early 90s.
[ii] For more on the matter of signals of commitment, I recommend: Rowthorn, R. (2002).  Marriage as a signal.  In A. W. Dnes and R. Rowthorn (Eds.), The Law and Economics of Marriage and Divorce (pp. 132 - 156).  New York: Cambridge University Press.; Nock, S.L.  (2009). The Growing Importance of Marriage in America.  In H. E. Peters and C. M. Kamp Dush (Eds.), Marriage and Family: Perspectives and Complexities (pp. 302-324). New York: Columbia University Press.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.
[iii] Wilcox and DeRose found a consistent and seemingly large difference in family stability for children of married versus cohabiting couples in many European countries; countries where cohabitation with children has legal characteristics similar to marriage. The larger story here is constantly unfolding into the future, but such findings suggest that marriage still represents a different commitment to the future than cohabitation.