Academic journal article Adolescence

Adolescent Premarital Sexual Activity, Cohabitation, and Attitudes toward Marriage

Academic journal article Adolescence

Adolescent Premarital Sexual Activity, Cohabitation, and Attitudes toward Marriage

Article excerpt


Societal trends indicate ambivalent attitudes about marriage. Specifically, there is greater acceptance of divorce and nontraditional living arrangements such as cohabitation, as well as acceptance and prevalence of premarital sex, than in the past. The authors examine adolescent attitudes toward marriage and their association with premarital sexual activity and cohabitation. Recommendations for helping adolescents understand the realities of marriage and family life are shared.


Cohabitation as an alternative to marriage has increased since the 1960s (Burguiere, Kaplish-Zuber, Segalen, & Zonabend, 1994). According to a 1996 U.S. Census report on marital status and living arrangements, the number of unmarried couples living together surged from 523,000 in 1970 to 4 million in 1996. In addition, Horwitz and White (1998) have estimated that nearly a quarter of unmarried people in the United States between the ages of 25 and 34 currently engage in cohabitation. These findings suggest the likelihood that a majority of people will be in an unmarried domestic relationship before marriage (Barich & Bielby, 1996; Horwitz & White, 1998; Lye & Waldron, 1997).

Often, cohabitation is viewed as a convenient way to obtain the advantages of an intimate relationship without the long-term commitment marriage entails (Edmondson, 1997; Horwitz & White, 1998; Institute for American Values, 1996; Lye & Waldron, 1997). According to Edmondson (1997), cohabitation is currently viewed by society as a "virtual marriage." Because cohabitation has become a more common and acceptable living arrangement (Burguiere et al., 1994; Clarksberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1995; Institute for American Values, 1996), people who choose cohabitation are no longer stigmatized by society (Clarksberg et al., 1995; Horwitz & White, 1998). Leifbroer and de Jong Gierveld (1993) have suggested that the increase in unmarried partnerships is a direct result of the increase in individual freedom to initiate and end intimate relationships. As a result, many young people no longer support the view that marriage is the only option for intimacy.

Divorced parents typically start a new relationship soon after separation (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). Tasker and Richards (1994) have reported that many divorced parents are choosing to cohabitate rather than remarry. This raises the possibility that exposure to this type of living arrangement eventually influences adolescents' attitudes toward marriage (Edmondson, 1997; Elkind, 1994; Kranczer, 1997), including an acceptance of cohabitation and the acceptability of serial relationships as an alternative to marriage (Kranczer, 1997; Lye & Waldron, 1997; Tasker & Richards, 1994).

Kozuch and Cooney (1995) found that acceptance of premarital cohabitation was higher when adolescents were exposed to significant levels of parental conflict and divorce. These researchers suggested that the observance of parental conflict is enough to convince young people that cohabitation is a necessity. They also suggested that young people view cohabitation as an attempt to determine compatibility and thus a way of increasing the chances of having a successful marriage later.

There has been extensive research on the effectiveness of nonmarried unions as a predictor of future marital success. It has been found that couples who choose cohabitation before marriage are 50% more likely to divorce than couples who do not choose cohabitation. In addition, marriages in which no prior cohabitation occurred are more stable than those in which the partners previously cohabited (Clarksberg et al., 1995; Cunningham & Antill, 1994; Liefbroer & de Jong Gierveld, 1993; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). Furthermore, cohabitation is not typically a long-term arrangement. Edmondson (1997) reported that, on average, such relationships last approximately one year. …

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