Cohabitation Makes Disengaged Bedfellows

By Horn, Wade F. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Cohabitation Makes Disengaged Bedfellows


Horn, Wade F., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


There is a disease masquerading as a cure. What's more, whenever people point out that the cure is really a disease, they are ridiculed as right-wing ideologues bent on misusing research data to advance an extremist agenda. The disease? Cohabitation.

And who are these right-wing ideologues advancing the nutty idea that cohabitation may not be all it's cracked up to be? David Popenoe, a professor of sociology and former dean at Rutgers University, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "The Divorce Culture" and the influential "Dan Quayle Was Right" article published several years ago in Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Together, Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead are co-founders of the National Marriage Project. Its mission is to provide research and analysis on the state of marriage in America and to educate the public on the social, economic and cultural conditions affecting marital success and well-being. Sounds innocent enough. After all, who is against marriage?

Then Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead waded into the waters of cohabitation. What they discovered surprised even them.

In a recently released study titled "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage," Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead reported enormous public approval for cohabitation.

In recent national surveys, nearly 60 percent of high school seniors agreed or mostly agreed that it usually is a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along. According to Mrs. Whitehead, Americans have come to view cohabitation as akin to baseball's spring training - a necessity if you want a successful season.

This increasingly positive view of cohabitation has mirrored enormous changes in actual behavior. In 1960, fewer than a half-million unmarried couples were cohabiting. Today, that number tops 4 million. More than half of all first marriages are preceded by cohabitation, compared with virtually none earlier in this century.

But so what? So what if increasing numbers of unmarried couples are cohabiting? Far better to test-drive a potential marriage than to discover you're not compatible after that walk down the aisle, right?

Well, not so fast. According to Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead, the chances of divorce actually are greater for couples who cohabit before marriage than for those who do not. For example, a 1992 study of 3,300 couples found that those who cohabited before marriage had a 46 percent higher chance of later divorce than those who did not cohabit before marriage.

Contrary to the popular belief that premarital cohabitation increases the odds of a successful marriage, Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead report that not a single scientific study has ever found a positive contribution of cohabitation to subsequent marriages.

Why should this be? Why should it be that cohabitation decreases, rather than increases, the chance of later marital success? Mr. Popenoe and Mrs. Whitehead argue that cohabitation is problematic because it reflects a very different level of commitment to a relationship than does marriage.

For example, rather than pooling resources, as is the case in most marriages, cohabiting couples share expenses. In other words, in successful marriages, the idea is: What's mine is ours. In cohabitation, the attitude more frequently is: After I pay my half of the rent, what's mine is mine. …

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