Not-So-Cozy Cohabitation

By Witcher, Phyllis H. | The World and I, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Not-So-Cozy Cohabitation


Witcher, Phyllis H., The World and I


Phyllis H. Witcher is founder of Protecting Marriage Inc., an educational nonprofit organization focusing on marriage and divorce policy issues. She is a recognized expert and activist on divorce law.

The general public has been told that cohabitation leads to marriage. Some data suggest that cohabitation promotes divorce and often leads to disaster in the family.

Many experts want to believe that cohabitation decreases the likelihood of divorce and offer it as their central reason for supporting the arrangement. Yet by opening the opportunity to unilateral no-fault divorce, people tend to seek more divorces and choose not to marry; they are also more disposed to cohabit. The numbers in support of this situation are alarming.

There are now eight times more cohabiting, unmarried couples than there were in 1970. Since that time, the number of marriages has decreased, to the point that the United States now has its lowest marriage rate in 40 years. When such a vacuum is created, people will move to fill it with an acceptable, if less desirable, replacement.

The reason that marriage has decreased in attractiveness is changes in divorce laws. Specifically, the laws ushered in from 1970 through 1985 have made it quicker and more profitable for an individual to choose divorce and much riskier to receive one. Repeated studies, such as Leora Friedberg's in the American Economic Review (June 1998), show that this statutory change to unilateral divorce, independent of all other factors, caused the divorce rate to increase dramatically.

A person's absolute right to many privileges around marriage was expunged from our laws in 1970. When "no-fault" divorce changed the basic procedures, all defenses in court were abolished. That change has had a negative and unpredictable impact, making divorce outcomes onerous. Many people now prefer not to marry in order to avoid the negative consequences of divorce. Let's consider what those are and then examine how to correct the situation.

The link between divorce and cohabitation

Divorce begets cohabitation. Adults whose own parents divorced are much more likely to choose cohabitation over marriage. This fact has been, perhaps wrongly, interpreted. Some researchers and therapists imply that the propensity to "marital failures" has been passed down to the current generation, as if divorce is a genetic illness or environmental toxin. Fortunately, the influence of a parental divorce on the later cohabitation of their children decreases as the parents' age at divorce increases.

It is not always recognized, but divorce commonly produces a decline in the socioeconomic status of one of the partners, usually the wife. Alimony is rare and, if awarded, rarely paid. Perhaps especially vexing is the fact that children are victimized.

Typically, children of divorce are less well supported than children of intact families. In addition, they do not develop as well psychologically or achieve as much educationally. They are usually less happy and well adjusted than other children, and our schools are overburdened dealing with their problems.

For some, cohabitation may be an effort to avoid the problems caused by divorce. It is now a leading family values issue, as well it should be. The disposition to avoid divorce is often strong among people who witnessed their parents' divorce. Nevertheless, children often suffer more when one member of the cohabiting unit is not the biological parent.

The family form of cohabitation/unmarried families which is counted with step-families in all surveys, is a highly sensitive area that needs examination for policy intervention. In his 2002 report Marriage: The Safest Place for Women and Children, Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation observed, "Although the United States has yet to develop the capacity to measure child abuse by family structure, British data on child abuse are available. …

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