Academic journal article Demographic Research

Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce: Support for the "Trial Marriage" Theory?

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Premarital Cohabitation and Divorce: Support for the "Trial Marriage" Theory?

Article excerpt


A number of studies show that premarital cohabitation is associated with an increased risk of subsequent marital dissolution. Some argue that this is a consequence of selection effects and that once these are controlled for premarital cohabitation has no effect on dissolution. We examine the effect of premarital cohabitation on subsequent marital dissolution by using rich retrospective life-history data from Austria. We model union formation and dissolution jointly to control for unobserved selectivity of cohabiters and non-cohabiters. Our results show that those who cohabit prior to marriage have a higher risk of marital dissolution. However, once observed and unobserved characteristics are controlled for, the risks of marital dissolution for those who cohabit prior to marriage are significantly lower than for those who marry directly. The finding that premarital cohabitation decreases the risk of marital separation provides support for the "trial marriage" theory.

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1. Introduction

The number of marriages ending in divorce rose rapidly in most developed nations during the 1970s and 1980s. Although divorce rates began to stabilise in the 1990s in some countries, they continued to rise in others. It has been shown that many factors are related to marriage dissolution, including women's increasing financial independence as their role in the labour market grows (Becker 1981; Hoem and Hoem 1992) and gender inequalities in wages gradually diminish (Davis and Joshi 1998); changes in gender roles (Kalmijn, de Graaf, and Poortman 2004; Lye and Biblarz 1993); factors related to the parental home, including parental separation (Amato 1996; Kiernan 1986); personal characteristics, such as educational qualifications (Hoem 1997a; Morgan and Rindfuss 1985); religious attitudes (Balakrishnan et al. 1987; Kalmijn, de Graaf, and Janssen 2005); the presence of one's own children (Erlangsen and Andersson 2001; Hoem 1997b; Morgan and Rindfuss 1985; Waite and Lillard 1991); the duration of the union (Chan and Halpin 2003); the partners' age at union formation (Tzeng and Mare 1995); the age gap between partners (Chan and Halpin 2003); the number of previous unions (O'Connor et al. 1999); and the place of residence and migration histories (Boyle et al. 2008; Muszynska and Kulu 2007). Recent research has also compared the relative influence of some of these factors across countries (Härkönen and Dronkers 2006; Liefborer and Dourleijn 2006). A detailed review of the factors associated with separation and divorce is provided by Amato (2010) and Lyngstad and Jalovaara (2010).

An additional factor that has generated considerable debate in the literature, and is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon, is the role of premarital cohabitation (Bumpass, Sweet, and Cherlin 1991; Ermisch and Francesconi 2000; Gabrielli and Hoem 2010; Hoem et al. 2009; Thornton and Philipov 2009). While some might imagine that premarital cohabitation would stabilise subsequent married unions, most of the literature suggests that it is in fact related to higher risks of marital dissolution. Various reasons for this empirical finding have been suggested, but one important factor that has not usually been controlled for adequately is the role of unobserved selection. Those who cohabit prior to marriage may have different unmeasured characteristics compared to those who do not and, if true, selection effects may mask the positive role that premarital cohabitation plays in subsequent marital stability.

The aim of this paper is to examine the effect of premarital cohabitation on divorce. We first study the relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce with and without controlling for a set of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of women and their partners. We then control for unmeasured characteristics of those who cohabit prior to marriage and those who marry directly to determine whether selection effects mask the "true" relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce. …

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