How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality?

By Tach, Laura; Halpern-Meekin, Sarah | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2009 | Go to article overview

How Does Premarital Cohabitation Affect Trajectories of Marital Quality?


Tach, Laura, Halpern-Meekin, Sarah, Journal of Marriage and Family


We investigate the link between premarital cohabitation and trajectories of subsequent marital quality using random effects growth curve models and repeated measures of marital quality from married women in the NLSY-79 (N = 3,598). We find that premarital cohabitors experience lower quality marital relationships on average, but this is driven by cohabitors with nonmarital births. Premarital cohabitors without nonmarital births report the same marital quality as women who did not cohabit before marriage. Nonmarital childbearing is more strongly associated with lower subsequent marital quality for White women than for Black or Hispanic women. Marital quality declines at similar rates for all couples regardless of cohabitation or nonmarital childbearing status. These findings are robust to numerous alternative model specifications.

Key Words: cohabitation, marital quality, marriage, nonmarital childbearing.

Over the past several decades marriages have been increasingly preceded by cohabitation, and in the 1990s cohabitation became the majority premarital experience (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995). As of the mid-1990s more than 60% of couples lived together before they married (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004), compared to about 10% in the mid-1970s (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Given that the typical marriage now be- gins with cohabitation, it is essential to understand what taking this pathway into marriage may mean for subsequent marital experiences. Previous research in this area has tended to focus on the robust correlation between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital dissolution and the potential explanations for this association (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003; Hohmann-Marriott, 2006; Kline et al., 2004; Phillips & Sweeney, 2005; Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006; Teachman, 2003). This emphasis on marital dissolution ignores a variety of other important marital outcomes, such as marital quality, that may also be related to premarital cohabitation.

This paper examines the relationship between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital quality. We build on previous work that shows a negative relationship between cohabitation and marital outcomes by investigating whether trajectories of marital quality are the same for all cohabitors. We differentiate between cohabitors who enter marriage with and without nonmarital children, and we further differentiate between those who cohabit or have nonmarital children with a future spouse or another partner. We also distinguish between first versus higher order marriages, marriages that began before or after cohabitation was the majority experience (before vs. after 1990), relationships of short versus long duration, and marriages within different racial groups. Finally, we examine changes in relationship quality over time, rather than measuring differences in levels of reported quality at one or two points in time as most prior research has done. Our approach aims to more accurately reflect the confluence of life events that influence future marital experiences.

Cohabitation and Marital Outcomes

Cohabitors tend to be less traditional, more individualistic, and more accepting of divorce than those who enter directly into marriage, and these factors are associated with future marital problems and union dissolution (Booth & Johnson, 1988; Brown & Booth, 1996; Lewis, Spanier, Atkinson, & LeHecka, 1977; Nock, 1995; Thomson & Colella, 1992). Family scholars have debated whether the disparities in relationship outcomes between cohabitors and noncohabitors are attributable to selection or experience (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988; Dush et al., 2003; Lillard, Brien, & Waite, 1995; Thomson & Colella). The selection explanation maintains that cohabitors have characteristics that predispose them both to choose premarital cohabitation and to have lower quality marriages. …

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