Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Mystery: Why Isn't Living Together Beforehand Associated with Improved Odds in Marriage?

by Scott Stanley

For decades, people have believed that living together should increase their odds of doing well in marriage. The core of this idea is that cohabiting would provide a test of a relationship. This seems logical but, mysteriously, decades of research do not show this benefit. In fact, until recently, the overwhelming majority of studies showed that cohabitation before marriage was associated with poorer odds of stability and happiness in marriage.[i] This has changed; recent studies suggest that the association with higher risk has dissipated or disappeared for some groups.[ii] And while the headlines tend to say there is no longer any risk, that’s misleading and I’ll explain why. Understanding what I describe here can help a person make better, more informed decisions in their relationships.

Let’s start with what the current research shows. For those readers who are either ideologically pro or against the idea of living together before marriage, I am not making any ideological point here. I’m talking about findings.  

Among those who cohabited before marriage, people who fit the following categories are likely to have marital outcomes similar to those who did not live together before marriage. That is, those having these characteristics do not show the type of added risks that have been associated over the past few decades with living together before marriage.
  •        Only ever cohabited with the person they marry.[iii]
  •        Only began to cohabit after having clear, mutually understood plans to marry their spouse.[iv]
  •        Did not cohabit until the age of 23 or later.[v]
That leaves the mystery. Note that the comparison group to which some premarital cohabiters do as well as, not better than (on average) is those who do not cohabit before marriage. How could the widely held belief that cohabiting before marriage actually improves one’s odds have virtually no evidence to support it? (I hedge slightly here because there are a few, rare findings showing this or that group cohabiting and having improved odds.)

There are several explanations for how cohabiting could seem so logical but still not be generally associated with improved odds. I’ll cover the two I think matter most. First, those who cohabited before marriage tend to already be at greater risk in marriage because of other factors, for example: having parents who divorce or never married, having poorer economic resources, less education, and so forth. These are called “selection” factors among researchers. Selection suggests that, for a lot of people, some part of their odds for how their relationships or marriages turn out was already baked in their cake, and an experience like cohabitation may not have altered those odds. There is a lot of evidence that selection is an important part in understanding this mystery I am addressing. The same types of selection factors are associated with greater odds of cohabiting with numerous partners (serially) and cohabiting prior to having clarified plans for a future.

The second explanation is in contrast to what’s baked in the cake. It’s about what you do with your cake after it’s baked. If you like a different metaphor, everyone is dealt a hand of cards, and some people get dealt better hands than others. But no matter what hand you were dealt, it will also matter how you play that hand.


All other things being equal, compared to dating without cohabiting, if two people are sharing one address, they will have a harder time breaking up, even if the relationship has serious weaknesses or problems. That is, cohabitation has more inertia than dating (while not cohabiting). Sure, loads of cohabiters break up—see my last post. But it’s harder to break up if cohabiting than if dating and not sharing an address.

This concept of inertia is based on the fact that many people increase their constraints for staying in a relationship before they have clarified a mutual dedication to being in the relationship.

The idea here is a little scary. We believe that some people marry someone they would not have married if they’d never moved in together. They got inertialized too soon. That’s gets to why we (my colleague Galena Rhoades and I) have predicted and found (over and over again) that couples who wait to cohabit until marriage or until they have clear, mutual plans to marry report, on average, more marital happiness, less conflict, more compatibility, and so forth.iv  Those couples are less likely to be prematurely caught in inertia.

For some individuals who made it harder to break up before deciding on a future with their partner, cohabitation probably decreased their odds of happiness in marriage. To be clear, I am sure that there are many people who move in together before having clarified anything but who do fine in marriage and/or life together. It’s just that the risk is greater in this group than in the other group, and it makes sense why that would be the case.

You may be thinking, “I don’t really believe in marriage anyway, so what’s this got to do with me?” Inertia is important to understand in any relationship. If you are not already in a committed relationship and you’d like to be, the relevant personal questions are these: What things could I avoid that could make it harder for me to break it off with someone before I’m sure I want to be with that person? How would I do that?

Ring, Ring

I’m a geek. I found this article a few years ago by Marguerite Reardon who nailed the way inertia works—in an article describing her commitment dilemma with her iPhone: Should I break up with my iPhone for Nokia's Lumia 900?

Her piece is a couple years old, so insert the name for some hot Samsung model (really, a super model) into her title.  Here’s a quote from her article.

But sadly now I’m feeling a bit stuck with Apple. I’d like to check out other smartphone platforms, but doing so is going to require some work on my part. Like many who have been sucked into Apple’s clutches, it was innocent in the beginning. . . . Initially, I didn’t realize the commitment I was making. I didn’t think about the fact that I was locking myself into a platform for the rest of my life. But with each new product I bought from Apple, the deeper I fell into the borg. And now I feel like it would be painful to break up with Apple. Not because I love the products or company so much, but because it would be a huge pain in the butt to transfer all my stuff to a new platform. (used by permission)

This is a great definition of what I call iNertia. If you check out her story, she actually goes on to liken the mobile phone dilemma to living together. It’s a fun and insightful piece. Take careful note of this. Most people think readily about inertia related to their mobile plan and being locked in for a year or two. Reardon is addressing a more powerful type of constraint that produces inertia based in the difficulty of moving on because of the depth of what you are already into. 

Inertia is really not all that mysterious once people see it clearly. We all experience it in many ways in modern life. But a lot of people think it’s only an issue when it comes to marriage, not cohabitation. It’s actually everywhere.  When it’s time to really commit to someone, it’s worth accepting that commitment requires making a choice to give up other choices. But before that time, too many people give up options before making a real choice. 

[i] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
[ii] For example: Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 - 387.
[iii] For example: Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.
[iv] For example (all findings controlling robustly for selection): 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 and Family, 72, 906-918.
[v] Kuperberg, A. (2014). Age at coresidence, premarital cohabitation, and marriage dissolution: 1985-2009. Journal of Marriage & Family, 76(2), 352-369. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Moving In and Moving On: Cohabitation is Less Likely Than Ever to Lead to Marriage

First posted on Institute for Family Studies Blog on 7-23-2014
Roman numerals are for footnotes at bottom of post, where you can also find further links.

In a new paper, Bowling Green State University sociologist Karen Guzzo analyzes how the odds of cohabitation leading to either getting married or breaking up have changed over the years. Before getting to her findings, let’s review some of the cohabitation trends she highlights in her report (based on prior studies).

  • The majority of people in their 30s have lived with someone outside of marriage.
  • Cohabitation, rather than marriage, is now the more common form of first union.
  • Fewer cohabiting unions now, compared to the past, start out with the couple having intentions to marry.[i]
  • People are more likely than ever to cohabit with multiple partners in succession—what I have called “CohabiDating.”[ii]
  • More children than ever before are born to cohabiting couples, and this explains most of the rise in the number of children being born out of wedlock.

Guzzo notes, as have others, that cohabiting has become a normative experience in the romantic and sexual lives of young adults. As young adults put off marriage until later in life, cohabitation has inhabited much of the space that used to be made up of married couples. I think this dramatic change in how relationships form matters for at least two reasons. First, cohabiting couples have become increasingly likely to have children, but they are less likely than married couples to have planned to have children[iii] and they are much less likely to remain together after having children.[iv] That’s not my subject today, but it should not be hard to see why it matters. Second, most people want lasting love in life, and most people still intend to accomplish that in marriage. However, the ways cohabitation has changed in the past three decades make it less likely that people who have that goal will succeed in it. That’s closer to my focus here.

It is obvious that cohabitation has become de-linked from marriage. Guzzo addresses a complicated question related to this change. Is it because all types of cohabiting couples have become less likely to marry or are there subgroups of cohabiters who are driving the increasing disconnect between moving in and moving on in life together? For example, it used to be the case that a couple who moved in together was very likely to get married—and, engaged or not, had an awareness of this when moving in together. But most experts believe that has changed. Guzzo wondered if those who already planned marriage before moving in together are as likely as ever to marry while all the other groups in the growing and diverse universe of cohabiters might be less likely to marry. Similarly, she examined if demographic changes in who cohabits, when, and under what circumstances changed the way cohabitation relates to marriage (e.g., analyzing variables such as race, education, and the presence of children from a prior relationship).

To simplify and summarize, what Guzzo found is that the increasing diversity in the types of cohabitation and cohabiters does not explain much about why things are so different from the past when it comes to increased odds that cohabiting couples will break up or not marry. Rather, on average, all types of cohabiting couples have become more likely than in the past to break up or not transition into marriage. Here’s a quote from her paper (pg. 834).  

Relative to cohabitations formed between 1990 and 1994, cohabitations formed from 1995–1999, 2000–2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%, respectively, more likely to dissolve than remain intact. The lower risk of marriage over remaining intact occurred only for the last two cohabitation cohorts (2000–2004 and 2005 and later), which were about 18% and 31% less likely to marry than remain intact, respectively.

Moving in together is becoming less and less likely to lead to having a future together. That’s not to say that all cohabiters are in the same boat regarding their destination. Those who are engaged (or have clear plans to marry) before moving in together are far more likely to eventually marry—but as Guzzo shows, even they are becoming less likely to do so. Related to this, my colleagues and I have shown, in numerous studies, that couples with clear plans to marry before cohabiting, along with those who marry without cohabiting, tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce than those who move in together before having a clearly settled commitment to the future in marriage.[v] (We believe this is largely because, while cohabiting unions obviously break up often, they are harder to break off than dating relationships because it becomes harder to move out and move on. So some people get stuck in a relationship they would otherwise have not remained in.)

Based on both findings and theory, I have long argued that if a couple tells you they are cohabiting and you know nothing else, you know very little about their level of commitment. Cohabitation is fundamentally ambiguous.[vi] In fact, that is part—but just part—of why I believe it has become so popular. Sure, there are many cohabiting couples for whom living together was understood as a step-up in commitment, but, on average, research shows it is not associated with an increase in dedication to one’s partner.[vii]

If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. That does not mean that all is perfect, of course. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer there is a lot of commitment. Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple who says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. Those things all signal commitment. Cohabitation, per se, very often does not. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.)

Practically speaking, what do Guzzo’s findings tell us? First, taken with the growing body of research in this area, I think we are seeing cohabitation headed toward becoming more ambiguous than ever regarding commitment. Actually, that’s not quite right. Cohabitation seems to be moving toward being, unambiguously, a form of dating with no implications about the odds of marrying. Second, these societal changes make it more important than ever for people who do want to succeed in marriage to be careful about how their romantic relationships before marriage unfold.  

If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation. Sure, more and more people are cohabiting, but it’s also less likely than ever to lead to marriage. In fact, people are increasingly cohabiting in ways that are associated with greater risks to the aspiration of marital success. If you are aiming for marriage, aim for a solid choice in a partner and then look to form a public, mutual promise to marry. While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance.

Addendum 7-3-2016. The Guzzo paper is very complicated and, since I know few will brave it, I wanted to add a few more quotes from it. She covers various alternative explanations and implications of the trends that are beyond a blog article, but these quotes may add more to your understanding of what she's showing. It is a complex but pretty amazing paper.

As I suggested at the start of this article, then, the present results confirm the notion that marriage has become less a part of the cohabitation process over time. (p. 839)

These results—that cohabiting unions, even those begun with engagement, are more likely to dissolve and less likely to transition to marriage over time even after accounting for compositional shifts—is all the more troubling because it suggests that young adults are having trouble realizing their desires and intentions to form more permanent and stable unions, particularly marriages. (p. 840)

[i] See study by Vespa(2014).
[iii] See this news story; see also this document from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
[iv] For example: Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Trends in the Structure and Stability of Children’s Family Lives” (paper presented at Population Association of America Meeting, Washington, DC, 2011).
[v] For a detailed but non-technical summary, see here.
[vi] For example, see Lindsay (2000).
[vii] For example, see study by Rhoades,Stanley, & Markman (2012).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

weCloud: Thoughts on Leaf Blowers vs. Brooms

Whatever happened to brooms? I know they still exist. We actually have a couple of them around our house, and, shocker, we use them. We have two regular sized ones; one for indoors and one for out. We also have a big ole push-broom for the patio and side walk and such.

I think about brooms whenever I see lawn care people out and about using leaf blowers to “clean up” after mowing a lawn. Have you ever thought about this? This style of “cleaning up” is not “sweeping up” nor, if there must be a noisy machine, even vacuuming up. What we all see instead is the (now) common practice of just blowing the crud all over the place—into the street, onto cars, into the air, or back into the lawn.

Just to be clear. I’m not super green. In fact, I’ve been around the block and know a thing or two—just like those amazing men in the Viagra commercials who can do anything because they are at the age of knowing how. (I’m not just like them, by the way. Just sayin. Um, got sidetracked. I am at the age of being sidetracked.)

That’s not what I mean by green. I meant I’m not a big enviro type. I do pretty seriously recycle and I try to use energy efficient stuff where I can. You could say I’m enviro-conscious and responsible but it’s not my big deal in life. But I do get annoyed with all these leaf blowing machines. For one thing, they are loud. That bugs me. I have sensitive hearing which I am trying to preserve for rock and roll and, you know, listening to people and all. But it does actually bother me to see all the dirt and dust and detritus regularly being blown into the air. It’s got to cause a short-term, serious spike in at least some type of air pollution for that immediate area.

Today, while driving home from work, I happened to notice one lawn guy blowing all the crud into the air in a tidy little cloud that was hovering around his coworker—who did not seem to notice or mind. Cough, hack, “thanks Jack.” No mask.  

Oddly enough, I have an idea about marriage and relationships here. I think a lot of couples never actually sweep up their messes. They mostly just make a lot of noise and blow all the dirt all over each other, the kids, and maybe the neighborhood. They don’t have to live that way.

I know we’re all increasingly living in “the” cloud; at least everyone keeps saying they have all their stuff there. (By the way, I think it was the Rolling Stones who, long ago, first sung about the now common topic of security in the Cloud. “Hey, hey, You, you . . ..”) Serious point arrives now. Recognize that, in your relationship, you don’t have to live in a dirty haze. Instead of living in weCloud, try a broom. Sweep some stuff up and throw it out. Do your part. In fact, if you sweep up a bit and put the dirt in a bag, in most places, nice people will come by within a week and cart it away. Doesn’t that sound good? I’m not saying it’s easy to sweep up messes, but it is doable. Now, think creatively about what the metaphor means for you and your relationship.

Brooms. They’re gonna be big.