Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cohabitation, Relationship Quality, and Desistance from Crime

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Cohabitation, Relationship Quality, and Desistance from Crime

Article excerpt

In the past 30 years, the structure of adult family relationships in the United States has changed dramatically: Marriage rates have declined steadily, whereas the popularity of cohabitation has soared (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Smock, 2000). These changes may not have replaced marriage, but they have delayed it (Bumpass & Lu, 1999; Goldstein & Kenney, 2001; Tanfer, 1987). For the majority of cohabiters, cohabitation now represents a precursor tomarriage that has helped increase the age of first marriage and substantially reduced its prevalence among young adults (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Guzzo, 2009; Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Premarital cohabitation is favored by a majority of U.S. high school seniors (Bachman, Johnston, & O'Malley, 2010; Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007), making it an increasingly normative stage in the transition to adulthood (Goodwin, Mosher, & Chandra, 2010; Smock, 2000).

These developments have heralded considerable research on the likely effects of cohabitation on a range of individual outcomes (Smock, 2000; Smock, Casper,&Wyse, 2008), but scholarly interest in how these changes might affect crime and delinquency lags behind. Despite substantial evidence that marriage is related to individual patterns of offending, including the timing of desistance from crime (Bersani, Laub,&Nieuwbeerta, 2009; Blokland&Nieuwbeerta, 2005; Horney, Osgood, & Marshall, 1995; Laub, Nagin, & Sampson, 1998; Laub & Sampson, 2003; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Siennick & Osgood, 2008), only a handful of studies have examined the links between cohabitation and changes in criminal offending (Horney et al., 1995; Sampson, Laub, & Wimer, 2006; Savolainen, 2009; Yamaguchi & Kandel, 1985). The studies that have done so have yielded inconsistent results, meaning that very little is actually known about how cohabitation relates to desistance from crime even though cohabitation is now more common than marriage in the period in which most people are expected to disengage from crime, that is, emerging adulthood. Given that most of what is known about the links between life course transitions and crime is based on the study of marriage (Siennick & Osgood, 2008), this knowledge may soon become redundant if demographic changes continue to outpace criminological inquiry.

Although there is reason to think that cohabitation may help encourage people to desist from crime, research on the subject is complicated by two key issues. First, if cohabitation does influence criminal behavior, it is likely to do so only in close and committed relationships (Laub et al., 1998; Laub & Sampson, 2003; Sampson & Laub, 1993). Yet cohabiters generally are much less attached and committed to their partners than married couples (Brown, 2003; Brown & Booth, 1996; Nock, 1995; Waite & Gallagher, 2001); as such, prior studies may have overlooked the impact of cohabitation on crime because a large number of cohabiting relationships lacked the characteristics necessary for them to be effective catalysts of behavioral change. Second, the fact that cohabitation increasingly precedes marriage, especially in relationships that are marked by commitment (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002; Guzzo, 2009; Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008), implies that disentangling the impact of cohabitation from that of marriage is becoming increasingly difficult.

This study was intended to overcome these challenges and help clarify the role of cohabitation in the desistance process. Whereas prior studies point to the average estimated effect of cohabitation across relationships that may differ dramatically in their effects, I evaluated the links between cohabitation and desistance while paying attention to whether they depend on the strength of relationships. In contrast to prior studies, I also distinguished among the experiences of cohabitation, marriage, and the transition between cohabitation and marriage. …

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