Thursday, January 16, 2014

Not Your Steppin Stone

It was not that long ago that couples who lived together before marriage were the exception. Gradually, but rapidly, living together before marriage became the norm, with current estimates being that 65 to 70% of couples will live together before they marry. Until recently, cohabiting was still largely something that was truly “before marriage” for most cohabiters. If you lived together you were likely getting married. This has been changing.

A new study by Jonathan Vespa, just out in the Journal of Marriage and Family, confirms that the link between marital intentions and cohabitation has been steadily weakening. You can see the abstract for the study here.

As Vespa describes, earlier studies by sociologists such as Cohen & Manning (2010) and Lichter, Turner, & Sassler (2010) showed that serial cohabitation—cohabiting with more than one partner outside of marriage—was on the rise, and that serial cohabitation had become associated with much lower odds of eventually marrying. I wrote about this growing trend in what I called cohabidating in a prior post (here).

Vespa used a large, national sample to test the trends. He reports the following:

1. Younger women (the more recent cohort) are more likely than those who came of age earlier to have had sex before the age of 15 and to already have a child when beginning to cohabit.
2. Cohabiting without a clearly formed intention to marry one’s partner is rising.
3. Serial cohabiting is rising.
4. The increase in cohabiting without clear intention to marry is not merely because of the rise of serial cohabitation.  That is, point 2 is not merely because of point 3.
5. Over 1/4th of women aged 16 through 28 have already cohabited with more than one partner. (I find that pretty stunning.)

These findings clearly confirm that cohabiting is becoming less and less, as Vespa puts it, a stepping stone to marriage. In other words, people are increasingly less likely to cohabit to try to get to the other side of the stream. Cohabiting is becoming disconnected from marriage much as child-bearing has become disconnected from marriage.

As I’ve written before, cohabitation does not hold much information about intention. Apart from something like engagement or strongly declared mutual plans to marry or have a future together, cohabitation tells you very little about the commitment level of two partners. I have a prediction.  With cohabitation becoming less and less associated with marriage, cohabitation will increasingly be less associated with commitment. This trend comes at a time where you can see, throughout the culture, a growing tendency for young people to believe moving in together means they are taking a step into a future together. To be sure, for some couples, it does mean that. But for a growing number of other couples, it reflects only a temporary state of being.

Not your steppin stone.

[By the way, if you have a certain song going through your head about now, you are likely over 45, and you can thank Paul Revere & the Raiders or The Monkees. That’s one groovy song.]