Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course

Article excerpt

Using cohort data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, this paper tracks the experiences of serial cohabitors. Results indicate that only a minority of cohabiting women (about 15% 20%) were involved in multiple cohabitations. Serial cohabitations were overrepresented among economically disadvantaged groups, especially those with low income and education. They also were less likely than single-instance cohabiting unions to end in marriage rather than dissolve. If serial cohabitors married, divorce rates were very high - more than twice as high as for women who cohabited only with their eventual husbands. The results suggest the need to balance the government's current preoccupation with marriage promotion with greater support of "at risk" unions that marriage promotion initiatives have helped create.

Key Words: cohabitation, dissolution, divorce, life course, marriage, relationships.

The rise of cohabitation is sometimes viewed as a threat to traditional marriage because it diminishes the symbolic significance of marriage and family life in American society (see Cherlin, 2004; Nock, 2002). Indeed, cohabitation has replaced marriage as the first union experience for the majority of young adults (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Fertility rates among cohabiting couples remain low (Raley, 2001) and marriages preceded by cohabitation are more likely to end in divorce (Phillips & Sweeney, 2005). Yet cohabitation arguably is no threat to traditional marriage if it represents a normative step in the marriage process, where committed relationships culminate in healthy marriages that provide stable family environments for children. Recent estimates in fact indicate that 54% of first unions began with cohabitation, and 56% of those aged 19-44 who married had previously cohabited (Bumpass & Lu). As we argue in this paper, however, the normative sequencing of cohabitation followed by stable marriages may be changing with the apparent rise in serial cohabitation - women who have cohabited with more than one partner. Specifically, we examine the marital life course of cohabiting women, especially as they transition into marriage and leave unhappy marriages.

Unlike previous studies of premarital cohabitation, we identify and track, for the first time, the recent marital experiences of serial cohabitors as they move from multiple coresidential relationships into marriages. We hypothesize that a series of cohabiting relationships is a potentially significant risk factor to forming a stable marriage. We have several specific objectives. First, we provide national estimates of the percentage of serial cohabitors using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979 - 2000). Second, we estimate models of the transition into marriage among cohabitors. We ask whether transition rates into marriage are lower among serial cohabitors than among women who cohabit only once, and we identify the putative barriers to marriage, such as low income or the presence of children. Third, we examine whether the marriages of cohabitors last or end in divorce. Previous studies have documented significantly higher rates of dissolution among serial cohabitors (DeMaris & McDonald, 1993; Teachman, 2003), but no studies to our knowledge have identified die specific social and economic predictors, including coresidential children, that place serial cohabitors at risk of marital dissolution. Our study addresses this research lacuna.

BACKGROUND AND THEORY

Cohabitation and Marital Outcomes: Selection or Causation?

Cohabitation is increasingly commonplace in American society. It is much less highly stigmatized (e.g., "living in sin") than in the past and occupies an "evolving place" in the American family system (Musick, 2007, p. 249). But cohabiting partners today also have less clearly defined long-term commitments to each other than in the past (Sassier, 2004). For example, Bumpass and Lu (2000) showed mat the percentage of cohabiting unions ending in marriage (over a 10-year period) declined from 60% to 53% from the early 1980s to the 1990s. …

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