Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Dissolution: An Examination of Recent Marriages

Article excerpt

An ongoing question remains for family researchers: Why does a positive association between cohabitation and marital dissolution exist when one of the primary reasons to cohabit is to test relationship compatibility? Drawing on recently collected data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth, the authors examined whether premarital cohabitation experiences were associated with marital instability among a recent contemporary (married since 1996) marriage cohort of men (N = 1,483) and women (N = 2,003). They found that a dichotomous indicator of premarital cohabitation was in fact not associated with marital instability among women and men. Furthermore, among cohabitors, marital commitment prior to cohabitation (engagement or definite plans for marriage) was tied to lower hazards of marital instability among women, but not men. This research contributes to our understanding of cohabitation, marital instability, and broader family change.

Key Words: cohabitation, cohort, divorce, marriage, stability.

The increase in cohabitation is well documented, such that nearly two thirds of newlyweds have cohabited prior to their first marriage (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008; National Center for Family & Marriage Research, 2010b). Cohabitation allows young adults to test their relationship (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991; Manning & Smock, 2009), which should help determine whether they are compatible before they marry; many researchers, however, have found a positive association between cohabitation and marital dissolution (e.g., Jose, O'Leary, & Moyer, 2010; Kamp Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2004; Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). The bulk of the work documenting a positive influence of cohabitation on marital instability rests on data collected from women over 10 years ago (National Survey of Families and Households, 1987-1988, see http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/nsfh/; National Survey of Family Growth [NSFG], 1995, 2002, see http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg.htm). Recent research suggests that as cohabitation becomes more common, its effect on marital instability may weaken for more recent marriage cohorts (Hewitt & De Vaus, 2009; Reinhold, 2010).

We drew on recently collected data from the NSFG (2006-2008; see http://www.cdc.gov/ nchs/nsfg.htm) to examine the relationship between cohabitation and marital dissolution among men and women. We first assessed whether cohabitation was associated with marital instability among recently married men and women. Our approach is consistent with the diffusion perspective, which argues that a weaker cohabitation effect exists among recent marriage cohorts with higher rates of premarital cohabitation. We also considered how commitment to marriage at the outset of cohabitation is tied to the relationship between cohabitation and marital instability. Given that most prior studies in the United States have relied on national data on women's marriages formed over 10 years ago, our work provides an important update. The findings from this article will help move forward our understanding of marital stability, cohabitation, and family change.

Background

The increase in cohabitation is well documented, with increasing percentages of young adults experiencing cohabitation. Furthermore, cohabitation has become the modal path to marriage, such that 44% of women cohabited prior to their first marriage in the late 1980s (1985-1989), and 67% have done so since 2000 (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; National Center for Family & Marriage Research, 2010b). At the same time, there has been a plateau in the divorce rate, with about one half of first marriages ending in separation or divorce (Raley & Bumpass, 2003; Stevenson & Wolfers, 2007). Thus, at the aggregate level, the rise in cohabitation is not associated with a similar growth in divorce (Goldstein, 1999).

Theoretically, cohabitation has been framed as comprising relationships in which marriages least likely to succeed were weeded out (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). …