Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Toward a Greater Understanding of the Cohabitation Effect: Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Communication

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Toward a Greater Understanding of the Cohabitation Effect: Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Communication

Article excerpt

The goal of the present study was to examine the relationship between premarital cohabitation experience and marital communication in an effort to understand the robust finding known as the cohabitation effect, whereby couples who cohabit before marriage have greater marital instability than couples who do not cohabit. Observed marital problem solving and social support behavior were examined as a function of premarital cohabitation experience in a sample of 92 couples in the first 2 years of their first marriages. Spouses who cohabited before marriage demonstrated more negative and less positive problem solving and support behaviors compared to spouses who did not cohabit. Sociodemographic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal functioning variables did not account for the association between cohabitation experience and marital communication.

One of the most dramatic demographic changes in the last 40 years is the increase in cohabitation. In 1996, there were approximately 4 million unmarried opposite-sex couples living together, seven times that of 1970 (LJ.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). Almost half of the adults in their early 30s and the recently married have cohabited (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). Many believe cohabitation will improve their ability to choose a better marriage partner (Hall & Zhao, 1995). However, it has been consistently shown that, compared to spouses who did not cohabit, spouses who cohabited before marriage have higher rates of marital separation and divorce (e.g., Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988). An explanation for the cohabitation effect, the positive relationship between cohabitation and marital instability, remains to be determined. In an effort to understand the cohabitation effect, the present study examines one predictor of marital instability-marital communication behavior-as a function of premarital cohabitation experience.

WHY ARE COHABITORS MORE LIKELY TO GET DIVORCED?

There are three basic hypotheses to explain the cohabitation effect. First, the association between cohabitation and marital instability may be an artifact of union duration. There is a normative decline in marital satisfaction in the early years of marriage (Kurdek, 1999) and cohabitors are farther along that trajectory when they enter marriage. There are mixed results, however, regarding whether union duration accounts for the greater risk of divorce among cohabitors (Teachman & Polonko, 1990; Teachman, Thomas, & Paasch, 1991).

A second possible explanation is that selection effects account for the association between cohabitation and divorce. People who cohabit are more likely to possess characteristics that are also risk factors for divorce such as parental divorce, less education, lower income, being non-White (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989), younger age, premarital pregnancy and childbirth (Bennett et al., 1988), and a previous divorce (Teachman & Polonko, 1990). To date, no demographic characteristics examined as possible selection effects have consistently explained the cohabitation effect. Further, certain attitudes may also predispose people to cohabitation and marital instability. Young adults with lower religiosity and greater acceptance of divorce were more likely to enter a cohabiting relationship (Axinn & Barber, 1997; Thornton, Axinn. & Hill 1992).

A third explanation for the cohabitation effect is that the experience of cohabitation itself causes later relationship instability by altering partners' values and lowering their threshold for leaving a relationship. Compared to their precohabitation reports, cohabitors reported increased acceptance of divorce and decreased rates of religious participation (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Thornton et al., 1992). A longer duration of cohabitation was associated with declines in interest in marriage and children, and cohabitors whose relationship dissolved reported increased acceptance of divorce (Axinn & Barber, 1997). …

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