Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Premarital Cohabitation and the Timing of First Marriage

Academic journal article The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology

Premarital Cohabitation and the Timing of First Marriage

Article excerpt

One of the most fundamental social changes in industrial countries today is the ongoing decline in marriage (Cherlin, 1992; Dumas and Peron, 1992; Waite, 1995). In Canada, the mean age at first marriage for women increased from 22.9 in 1961 to 27.3 in 1996 (Canadian Vital Statistics). For men, the figures were 25.8 and 29.3. During the same period, the proportion of the population aged 15 and older that was unmarried increased from 33% to 49% (Canadian Census).

The recent decline in marriage has been concurrent with a striking rise in non-marital cohabitation (e.g., Blanc, 1987; Bumpass and Sweet, 1989; Carmichael, 1990; Leridon, 1990; Liefbroer, 1991; Wu and Balakrishnan, 1995).(1) For example, cohabiting couples represent 12% of all couples identified in the 1996 Canadian Census, up from 6% in 1981. Cohabitation has become particularly common among young people (Bumpass, Sweet and Cherlin, 1991; Burch and Madan, 1986; Leridon, 1990) and individuals who dissolved their marriages through divorce (Blanc, 1987; Bumpass and Sweet, 1989; Wu, 1995). In fact, as Bumpass et al. (1991) have shown, the upward trend of cohabitation may have compensated for as much as two thirds of the decline in marriage rates for young American adults. In other words, the overall rates of union formation in North America may have changed little in recent decades (Bumpass et al., 1991; Burch and Madan, 1986).

Although it is unmistakable that an upward trend in cohabitation has been coupled with a downward trend in marriage, one cannot simply infer that one trend is the cause of the other. The relationship could be essentially spurious and may represent no direct causal relationship. It is possible, for example, that structural changes, such as the rise in women's labour force participation, underlie both demographic trends. Moreover, at the individual level, it seems intuitive that cohabitation would delay marriage simply because it takes time to experience cohabitation. This may be particularly true when cohabitations do not later become marriages (Oppenheimer, 1994: 308). However, I am not aware of any studies that have established or tested this relationship directly. Neither do we know the extent to which cohabitational experiences are directly responsible for the rising delays in marriage. In this paper I examine the role of cohabitational experience as a determinant in the timing of first marriage. I develop and test a series of hypotheses about the relationship between cohabitational experience and marriage timing. I also address the issue of selection into cohabitation in the process of union formation. My empirical analysis draws on union history data from a recent Canadian survey.

Theoretical Background and Hypotheses

The sharp rise in non-marital cohabitation has raised important concerns among demographers, family sociologists, and lay people alike about its consequences for the process of family formation and dissolution. Because many cohabiting partners eventually marry each other, a considerable amount of attention has been given to the linkage between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability (e.g., Bennett, Blanc and Bloom, 1988; Booth and Johnson, 1988; Teachman and Polonko, 1990). Empirical research on this relationship has been remarkably consistent in suggesting that premarital cohabitation is associated with lower marital stability (e.g., Balakrishnan, Rao, Lapierre-Adamcyk and Krotki, 1987; Bennett et al., 1988; Halli and Zimmer, 1991; Lillard, Brien and Waite, 1995; Teachman and Polonko, 1990).

A negative relationship between cohabitation and subsequent marital stability is counterintuitive in that living together before marriage would seem to be a means of screening out poor matches, thereby improving marital stability. Why, then, is this relationship negative? Prior theory and research has offered two basic explanations. One explanation emphasizes the self-selection of people into cohabitation. …

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