Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Here We Go Again: More Passionate Debating about Cohabiting before Marriage!


You might take some time looking at the latest dustup about cohabiting before marriage. These fracases used to come up about once a year, then maybe twice a year. I think they are getting more frequent.

The current, new energy around this topic was generated by an editorial in The Sunday New York Times, written by a clinical psychologist (Meg Jay), entitled: “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage.” Go ahead and read it or skim it. Then come back. You might need to Google it as the NYTs seems to have a way of making the link not work.

Those of you who know our work will recognize how much Meg Jay’s piece hovers around the points we make and our findings at the University of Denver. She is primarily drawing attention to the underappreciated downside to cohabitation. In our work, we call this inertia, noting that the inertia of living together makes is harder to break up than dating without living together. If you want a quick summary of the concept of inertia as we describe and study it, see my post from last week, just below. If you want a sense of the research we (Galena Rhoades and I along with our colleague Howard Markman) have been doing, see the document here. That’s for those of you who want to more deeply absorb our research and the place of it in the empirical literature surrounding these debates.

Back to The New York Times and this cultural moment. I’ll share some links with you where people are reacting to Meg Jay’s piece, and then I’ll make a few comments about each.

Natasha Burton’s: Cohabitation-Divorce Link? I Don't Think So.

1. First off, note her utter certainty about the research, that there is no link between cohabitation before marriage and how marriages do. She suggests this is a debunked idea, so move on. In fact, she links to another blog for more depth on that point (Hanna Rosin’s, here). Note that the research in question focuses only on divorce as an outcome. We show variations of the cohabitation effect (really, the “before mutual plans for marriage” cohabitation effect) in numerous published studies, including in recent samples, particularly on dimension of relationship quality. I also think the divorce effect still exists, but a little less clearly than in the past. There are complex issues about research in play there, which I’ll skip for now. The main point here is that we find that cohabiting before engagement is associated with, on average, lower relationship quality in marriage. The whole reason this is interesting is because of the main point Meg Jay makes—that cohabitation has a downside. In our work, we call it inertia.

2. Burton is dismissive of Jay’s points based on her own belief that the issues being raised are settled matters in social science (which is not true). Jay's points are more consistent with a lot of empirical evidence than Burton realizes.

3. Ironically, Burton falls back on what she criticizes in Jay without apparently noticing it: using anecdotal evidence, but from her own life. She describes her own process of cohabiting in ways I would consider unusually careful and deliberate. In our national sample of cohabiters, we find that 2/3rds describe something more like sliding than deciding in terms of how they began to cohabit. Burton's personal anecdote amounts to showing that she is a decider, yet, this is not remotely what most people actually do. In implying the importance of it, Burton shows substantial agreement with points Jay makes toward the end of her editorial but she gives Jay no credit on this score or any other.

4. Burton references Hannah Rosin’s blog. Rosin notes, rightly I think, that the biggest “train wreck” coming next may be the rise in serial cohabitation. She points out that this pattern is linked to poverty and other background risk factors. Nevertheless, I think this emerging trend has huge implications for children and that it will become common regardless of social strata.

What often seems lost in these discussions are simple things. Serial cohabitation becomes serial because a first cohabitation ended and a second one began, with perhaps others to follow. While there is selection in play (meaning prior risks are involved in the total risk), what a person who's had one cohabiting relationship end does next has to have some influence on their cumulative risk. At times, people talk about selection in this area of research as if they truly do not believe that there is a single thing such a person can do to lower their risks--the risks are just baked in and that's just too bad. Sure, the point is never, ever said harshly like that; but the implication of the thinking is harsh, deterministic, and hopeless.

What if such a person, despite the odds stacked against them, chooses to go slowly and decide if, when, and how they were to cohabit again rather than just sliding into the next round of cohabiting? Maybe especially "what if" if they have children. Is that a crazy idea? For those of you will jump right into the poverty issue on all of this, noting how much more challenging for people in poverty, I want to say, "of course it's more challenging if you are in poverty." But maybe it's especially important to think about the decisions one does have control over when one has the fewest options of all.

This next piece by Anna Weaver, entitled Should Couples Be Wary of Cohabitation? recognizes one of the main points that Meg Jay was driving toward.

1. Anna Weaver focuses on a key point Meg Jay made: “Whether you agree with premarital cohabitation or not, Jay's point is well-taken. Before you combine utilities or your coffee mug collections, how about a little discussion of where this all is leading?”

2. It seems to me that people have to be pretty stridently offended by any sense that there could be a downside to cohabiting before marriage (or before engagement) to react the way some seem to react to a piece like Meg Jay’s. Anna Weaver is not offended; she gets the obvious point.

One more blog to check on here today. And thank you, Bill Coffin, for pointing me to so many of these today.

Check out this piece on a blog called “Cheap Talk,” entitled Living Together Before Marriage Leads To Divorce?

The author of this entry, Jeff, writes: “Does this make any sense? Isn’t a couple who goes straight to the sliding in before getting married ultimately just as locked in as a couple who completely abstains from sliding in until they are locked in by the bonds of wedlock?”

I can’t tell who Jeff is, but he understands something about the research in this area and something about selection. He does not seem to me to be aware of a lot of research, but some.

I think Jeff’s argument gets close to the whole point but misses the critical part. There are many types of relationship situations that are more constrained than others: cohabiting is more constrained than dating, most of the time, and marriage is more constrained than cohabiting, most of the time. I think this is the crucial piece too many people don't see clearly about cohabiting compared to dating. Now, add the fact that most couples slide into cohabiting. That means people are often giving up options before making a choice. That’s part of why being married or at least engaged before cohabiting can matter to how things turn out. (Again, we find this over and over again in our studies.) Back to Jeff. When a couple gets married, everyone realizes that their marriage may not last and could even be disastrous. But in marrying, everyone also knows that the two people are choosing to be more constrained together rather than sliding into more constraint. The decision precedes the big increase in constraints. Sliding into cohabitation is something different, entirely. That's too often the whole point, of course; one or both partners may not be ready to make a deeper commitment and sliding avoids confronting this issue. Of course, that turns out particularly badly if one partner is pretty committed and only finds out later that the other never was. There is a reason--a serious reason--why the book "He's Just Not That Into You" has been a bestseller.

To be fair about the research, many couples slide and do fine. In fact, in this current dustup, there are countless comments from folks pinned to the various articles around the web about how it all turned out fine for them and they have been married for X number of years. That's good for them. It’s just that the odds of it not turning out so fine go up when we take lightly transitions of any sort that increases constraints when we are not even noticing how that is happening. The less clarity there is about what cohabiting is and what it means for a couple (either because they are not already married or engaged, or they have not talked about it openly and clearly), the more risk there is of getting stuck. Some couples get stuck a long time, and you can see it in their lower marital quality. And I'm not even raising, right now, the issues of how children are involved. See a few posts back if you want to bring that issue into the mix, here.

It doesn't seem to me to be all that radical to raise questions about why cohabiting does not always work out the way people think it will. Or maybe it is? People sure get energized about this topic. Compounding all this, media arguments about cohabitation often pretend to be centered on science. But the science here is very complex, and patterns and risks vary such that different people have different risks related to the same behaviors. None of the references to the science on cohabitation in all the stories I have seen this week show any kind of sophistication in understanding the research or the phenomena. It's like we, as a culture, are the couple that can't talk clearly about what's really happening when we begin to cohabit, so we slide.

For those of you who are skeptical of there being any issues of risk involved in how Americans cohabit before marriage, just how far do you want to go to argue that there is nothing worth pondering in all this? How believable is it, really, that it just does not matter how or when or why a person enters a relationship pattern that can make it harder to break-up?