04.18.12

The Case for Cohabitation

A popular New York Times op-ed on the risks of shacking up before marriage has sparked unnecessary fear among some cohabitors, says Hannah Seligson. A closer look at the research reveals sunnier outcomes.

It’s springtime, and love is in the air—which means that lots of 20somethings are packing up their belongings and embarking on a romantic rite of passage that has become de rigueur: moving in with their significant other.

Yet if Sunday’s viral New York Times op-ed, “The Downside of Cohabitation Before Marriage,” is to believed, this now beyond-mainstream part of the modern dating dance—living together before marriage—should be met with great caution, if not downright avoided. Here’s why, according to the author of the piece, Meg Jay, a Charlottesville, Va., psychologist who specializes in treating young adults.

“Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages—and more likely to divorce—than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.”

Jay spotlights the oft-cited argument that cohabitation is a casual arrangement that just happens—in the lexicon of researchers, “sliding, not deciding.” And once two people shack up, it’s harder for them to disentangle, leaving many young people with the double-whammy of being stuck in a living arrangement that was born out convenience (and that can turn awkward fast), and one that leads to a tepid level of commitment and a doomed marriage. Or so the theory goes. But cohabitation researchers see the outcomes a little differently.

“Some of the most recent studies are finding no effect on the likelihood of divorce, even along racial and class lines,” says Pam Smock, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, who has been researching cohabitation for two decades.

“Cohabitation may actually be keeping divorce rates steady by weeding out couples who would have been more likely to get divorced had they not lived together and realized they weren’t compatible. A lot of these cohabitation relationships do breakup,” Smock points out.

And a breakup, as we all know, is a lot better than a divorce.

Sharon Sassler, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University who has extensively studied cohabiters, agrees that there is a lot of mythology surrounding cohabitation—and says statistics that correlate living together with higher divorce rates are outdated.

More recent studies signal an alarm bell for a select group: serial cohabiters.

More recent studies, Sassler says, signal an alarm bell only for a select group: serial cohabiters. “People who live with multiple partners have higher divorce rates. If you’ve only lived with the person you are going to marry, you have no greater chance of getting divorced than a couple who hasn’t lived together,” Sassler explains.

What about the insidious tumble effect—or in the parlance of the demo, “Your lease is up, my lease is up, so, sure, let’s move in together?”

This phenomenon also needs a disclaimer, says Amanda Miller, a professor of sociology at the University of Central Oklahoma who has researched the mechanics of cohabitation. “You really have to take class into account,” Miller says. “In the research Sharon Sassler and I conducted, we found that middle-class couples were far more likely to have the luxury to decide to move in together rather than sliding into it.”

Like with marriage, cohabitation’s storyline is very much driven by class. Miller and Sassler found that lower-income participants felt they had to move in together because someone’s roommate moved out and they couldn’t afford to live alone, whereas middle-income participants more often reported making a conscious choice to live together.

As for cohabitation’s effect on getting married, Miller says the middle-income couples aren’t tying the knot because someone needs health insurance or they’ve already lived together for seven or eight years. “For them, marriage is a deliberate and well-thought out choice. We found, at least in our sample, that the middle-class men love the women and wanted to be married.”

So if cohabitation isn’t necessarily a divorce sentence for a relationship—or a procrastination tool for marrying—why do we still see fairly regular critiques of cohabitation? To start, young people’s romantic, and by extension sexual, choices have a long history of being stigmatized. Look no further than the outrage over premarital sex, even after the advent of birth control.

Today, with the exception of pockets of religious communities and Rick Santorum, we’ve mostly gone sex-positive as a nation—there’s now “sex week” on a large smattering of college campuses, and condoms, while occasionally controversial, are not hard to find at the vast majority of health centers. In other words, we have more or less embraced the reality that young people have sex before they get married, so they might as well be doing it safely.

Yet cohabitation seems to have replaced premarital sex as the axe to grind among everyone from social conservatives to psychologists. Given that 70 to 90 percent of young people will live together before they get married, though, it’s a pretty shortsighted view to the issue.

Of course, not everyone takes the wagging-finger approach. In New Zealand, for example, to reflect the large numbers of heterosexual people living together outside of the typical bonds of marriage, the country progressed beyond a binary system of “single or married”—since 2003, there’s been a third option called Defacto, which refers to a category of people who live together.

New Zealand is so serious about the non-married cohabiting couple that if you have been in a "de facto" relationship for more than two years and you break up, the other person is entitled to half your assets. (Not necessarily a good thing.) Laws in the United States have not evolved to meet the changing social trend, which can cause cohabitating couples to find themselves bereft of many institutional supports. But for a number of reasons, a de facto-type policy is probably not a political reality.

Still, we could move to a more enlightened conversation about cohabitation, giving young people more education and resources about how to make a smooth and successful transition to cohabitation, and then from living together to marriage. Sassler says the takeaway from her research is that couples need to talk about situations such as the possibility of getting pregnant, whether they’ll split household expenses evenly, and general expectations about gender roles.

For a more celebratory approach, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, and other stores of their ilk could even start cohabitation registries.

As for the downsides of living together, they pretty much mirror what they are for marriage. For women, more housework and more calories. (One study found that cohabiting women are more likely to gain weight.) For men, well, like with marriage, it’s pretty much all upside.