Hitting without a License: Testing Explanations for Differences in Partner Abuse between Young Adult Daters and Cohabitors

By Magdol, Lynn; Moffitt, Terrie E. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Hitting without a License: Testing Explanations for Differences in Partner Abuse between Young Adult Daters and Cohabitors


Magdol, Lynn, Moffitt, Terrie E., Caspi, Avshalom, Silva, Phil A., Journal of Marriage and Family


TERRIE E. MOFFITT AND AVSHALOM CASPI UNIVERSITY of London and University of Wisconsin*

PHIL A. SILVA University of Otago**

We compared partner abuse by cohabitors and daters among 21-year-olds. Cohabitors were significantly more likely than daters to perform abusive behaviors. We identified factors that differentiate cohabitors from daters and tested whether these factors explained the difference in partner abuse. As controls in regression models predicting abuse, none of these factors individually explained the difference in partner abuse between cohabitors and daters. With all factors added to the model simultaneously, the effect of cohabitation remained significant, but was substantially reduced. These findings have intervention implications because premarital cohabitation is a risk factor for abuse after marriage.

Key Words: cohabitation, dating, intimate relationships, partner abuse, young adults.

The problem of abuse and violence between intimate partners is well established. Estimates from nationally representative samples in the United States suggest that prevalence rates among young adults may be as high as 51% for "general" violence and 23% for "serious" violence (Fagan & Browne, 1994). In a now classic paper, Stets and Straus (1990) referred to "the marriage license as a hitting license," and they implied that couples who are bound by the provisions of a legal contract may be abusive because of rights and normative expectations that are associated with the institution of marriage. Stets and Straus also found that couples in de facto marriages (i.e., living together without a marriage license) experienced even more violence than married couples.

In our study, we examined partner violence among young adults who have not waited for a license to abuse their partners, and we compared levels of abuse in different kinds of unmarried relationships. Because rates of partner violence are dramatically higher for young adults than for other age groups (U.S. Department of Justice, 1995), we need to pay more attention to the kinds of relationships that are typical of this age group (Reiss & Roth, 1993, p. 222). We documented differences in levels of partner abuse between young adults in dating versus cohabiting relationships in a representative sample of 21-year-old men and women. We then tested a set of hypotheyoung adults in dating versus cohabiting relationships in a representative sample of 21-year-old men and women. We then tested a set of hypotheses about factors that might explain these differences.

The majority of research on partner violence has focused on married couples (Fagan & Browne, 1994). However, studies of dating and cohabiting couples also reveal alarming rates of abuse in these relationships (e.g., Ellis, 1989; Malamuth, Sockloskie, Koss, & Tanaka, 1991; Stets, 1992; Sugarman & Hotaling, 1989). Some research suggests that cohabiting couples engage in more violence than dating couples (Lane & Gwartney-Gibbs, 1985; Sigelman, Berry, & Wiles, 1984; Stets & Straus, 1990). Furthermore, research on newly married couples found that those who had lived together before marriage had much higher rates of premarital violence (McLaughlin, Leonard, & Senchak, 1992). These findings underscore the importance of studying cohabitation to facilitate intervention among youth who are at risk for violence in their relationships.

It is especially important to focus on cohabitation because of the low rate of marriage among contemporary young adults. In the U.S., the median age at first marriage for women has increased from 20.6 years in 1970 to 23.7 years in 1988 (U.S. Bureau of the Census,1994). This historical shift has been mirrored in New Zealand, the site of the study presented here, where the average age at first marriage for women has increased from 21.2 years in 1971-1972 to 25.2 years in 1991 (New Zealand Department of Statistics, 1993). …

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