Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cohabitation and Divorce

"Paradoxically, though, the choice of marriage preceded by cohabitation apparently attracts some couples who are less committed than others to lifelong relationships, since these marriages end in divorce at a far higher rate than those not preceded by cohabitation."
(Margaret Brinig, From Contract to Covenant)

Cohabitation before marriage provides a couple information about their ability to live happily together. That ought to make marital mistakes less likely and so lead to a lower chance of divorce. The evidence, however, goes in exactly the opposite direction. Brinig's explanation is that cohabitation makes divorce less likely, but the sort of people who cohabit are less likely to stay married than the sort who don't, and the second effect outweighs the first.

It is a possible explanation, but I am not sure it is the correct one, and she offers no evidence for it. I have some data of my own, although the sample size is a bit small. My first marriage was preceded by cohabitation and lasted about four years. The second was not, and has been going for more than twenty.

On the basis of that experience, I offer two alternative explanations:

1. Humans, like some species of birds, pair mate--not exclusively, but as an important element in our reproductive strategy. Part of what makes that workable is a link between sexual activity and our emotions, hardwired by evolution. Sleeping with someone, especially on a regular basis, creates emotional bonds. Breaking them can be hard. Those bonds, once created, may result in your marrying someone who, absent those bonds, you would have recognized as insufficiently well suited to you for a permanent relation.

2. Humans have a tendency to heavily discount future benefits in their decisions. This makes evolutionary sense, since we evolved in a very risky environment. Giving up benefits today in order to get larger benefits ten years from now is a bad bet--unless the benefits are a lot larger--if you are quite likely to starve to death in a famine or get eaten by a predator before the benefits arrive. We deal with the conflict between hardwired inclination and rational calculation by a variety of devices, such as Christmas clubs to precommit us to save and awarding status to wealth as well as to consumption.

For many people, cohabitation is much pleasanter than search. Not only does it result in a lot more sex, it also provides a range of emotional and practical support. If you are cohabiting with someone sufficiently well suited to you to make cohabitation workable but not to justify marriage, abandoning cohabitation in favor of continued search means giving up a current benefit in exchange for a distant and uncertain future benefit. So you may continue to cohabit, which means you are not searching--or at least searching much less. Lack of search means you don't find a better partner, so you eventually marry the one you have.

This is, of course, a drastically incomplete account of human mating behavior. Most obviously, humans, especially males, have an alternative strategy--promiscuity. A classic article by Brinig, "Rings or Promises," argued that the custom of giving engagement rings developed as a female defense against that strategy--a performance bond on the promise to marry in a world where intercourse conditioned on that promise was common, but loss of virginity sharply reduced marital opportunities--when courts stopped permitting damage suits for breach of promise. For a more expert account than mine of the relation between evolution and human sexual behavior, I recommend the work of David Buss.

But I think mine is a sufficiently accurate account to explain why cohabitation may sometimes be a mistake.


Anonymous said...

I think it might explain why marriages preceded by cohabitation more often lead to divorce. It does not show that it is a mistake. In order to show that you would need to know the utility of both the marriage and the divorce. For instance, how long do you have to be married before you 'buy off' the negative effects of an eventual divorce? How long do you have to be married to make up for the cohabitation you didn't do beforehand?

David Friedman said...

Corwin writes:

"I think it might explain why marriages preceded by cohabitation more often lead to divorce. It does not show that it is a mistake."

True. I said "may be," not "is."

Milhouse said...

For many people, cohabitation is much pleasanter than search. Not only does it result in a lot more sex

Does it? I wouldn't be surprised if the opposite were true.

Another point: I think it's fair to say that all marriages-preceded-by-cohabitation (MPBC) are also preceded by sex, whereas many marriages-not-preceded-by-cohabitation (MNPBC) are also not preceded by sex. Some proportion of marriages are "forced" by pregnancy, and I suggest that MPBC are more likely to fall into this category than are MNPBC. Marriages "forced" by pregnancy can be expected to fail more often than marriages which were more voluntary. Perhaps this difference may explain some or all of the anomaly you're discussing.

Todd Mitchell said...

You have to factor in other variables when looking at the cohabitation=divorce argument (which, btw, most social scientists dismiss as a false correlation).

Take religiosity, for example. Couples who are less religious tend to cohabit at a higher rate and divorce at a higher rate than those who are more religious. Religion is more of an explanatory variable in explaining divorce than "shacking up", in that sense.

David Friedman said...

Todd Mitchell suggests that factors such as religion might affect both cohabitation and divorce, creating correlation without causation.

That's Brinig's explanation, which I cited at the begining of my post. I agree that it's possible.

On the other hand, one could make the argument as easily in the opposite direction. A man with a taste for promiscuity will be less likely to cohabit--and if he marries, less likely to stay married. A man who likes domesticity and stability will prefer cohabitation to search--and if he marries is likely to stay married.

So additional factors that affect both cohabitation and marital stability could as easily result in a misleading positive correlation as a misleading negative one.

Lippard said...

Todd says "Couples who are less religious tend to cohabit at a higher rate and divorce at a higher rate than those who are more religious."

What's the evidence for the latter?


Anonymous said...

What differentiates cohabitation from marriage? Largely, it is the value of a promise made in public. What does that promise entail? At the most, to stay with the other forever. At the least, to stay fully--to use the modern term--"committed" to the other for as long as they stay together and, therefore, to discontinue, while married, the "search".

In marriage, such a promise is publicly made. In cohabitation, such a promise is not publicly made.

When cohabiters marry, they carry into that marriage, and therefore must overcome, the inertia of living together without the burden of such a promise. That is, they have, in a sense, been (self-) trained to view living together as not a permanent but rather an ad hoc circumstance.

The greater surprise may be that some cohabiters, when married, remain married. It shows that some old dogs CAN learn new tricks.

Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. A couple things missing.
First: I've always like the line in Spartacus when he declines having a "service" girl before being in the arena: "I'm not an animal."
Secondly: cohabiting & premarital inhibits or ends search is a good call. I had never thought of it. It is the most rational wisdom I've heard for not having sex in order to continue the search (I violated it only once and, well, see #4 below).
Third: largest missing data point: KIDS. If we have any integrity as human beings, we take divorce off the table when kids are born. With obvious exceptions (abuse, drugs/alcoholism) it stays off the table (more child abuse by women than men, by the way).
Fourth: Thus none of these discussions, in my view, are valid without declaring about kids (I raised my 3 sons as a single parent from their being 7, 10 and 12, resulting in no searching, no cohabiting, as I was able to do this by sandwish generationing: caregiving parents simultaneously).
Fifth: 8 years ago in confirmation class materials I read (can't remember reference) that couples that attend church together at least 3 Sundays a month had a 2% divorce rate. This discussion without serious considertion of the myth of Campbell's myth of bliss are also seriously incomplete (follow one's heart). Note "Brokeback Mountain" celebrates bliss, making it OK for two fathers to abandon their kids. Check how many films and pop culture music and TV celebrate bliss over kids, commitment, responsibility. Which brings us to the statement that civilizations can only be defeated after they have decayed from within. Our record with abandoning kids, and belief in some circles than men are not necessary, leading to more women going to college and even more graduating, not to mention Moynihan's predictions coming true about inner city males, and we see problems that come from culturally dismissing commitment and "kids first" protection across the board,
P.S. Great blog. Just learned of it today.

Anonymous said...


I found your weblog today and have enjoyed it.

My wife and I have presented marriage preparation weekends for about 15 years, and cohabitation is an issue we deal with. The statistics are counter-intuitive. I agree with your first explanation you offered – I would add that the decision to cohabitate is not always discrete or well thought out. If it were really “we are going to cohabitate for 6 months and then decide to either separate or get engaged” it might work better. I think the more frequent case is that couples begin sleeping over, and then clothes gradually move from one apartment to the other, and the decision to move in together is triggered by something like one of the leases coming up for renewal.

Another possible reason for cohabitation leading to a higher divorce rate is that the patterns that begin in a cohabitating relationship (for example keeping money separate and splitting expenses down the middle) may continue into the marriage.

One final thought is that the key issue may not be cohabitation before marriage but cohabitation before engagement. A couple that gets engaged and then moves in together has a different dynamic then the couple that sort of falls into cohabitation and slides into marriage


Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion.

"When cohabiters marry, they carry into that marriage, and therefore must overcome, the inertia of living together without the burden of such a promise. That is, they have, in a sense, been (self-) trained to view living together as not a permanent but rather an ad hoc circumstance."

This is very post hoc ergo propter hoc. Who can say with authority that any two people cohabitating have not made such a promise to one another? Or that people who have gotten married have made such a promise and aren't just like, "hell, we're having sex, maybe we should get married"? It is entirely contingent on the specifics of those two people. It is impossible to discuss marriage in a vacuum. So many more factors come into play: love, trust, economic stability, local economy, family, religious background, social background, sexuality, etc. The same things come into play in any functional relationship. Plenty of people get married -- and stay married -- without thinking about it deeply -- at LEAST as many who cohabitate without thinking about the repercussions!

Positing that cohabitation means that the people involved are "less serious" about a relationship than those who people who are married is a biased opinion (one that anyone is entitled to have), but it is not a line of reasoning. Any intertia which has to be overcome is contingent on individual circumstance.

Following this reasoning, homosexual couples, who are not allowed to marry, or biracial couples (or even couples who come from radically different social spheres), who may have been prohibited from marrying in the past, have no legitimate claim to a long-term, successful, happy relationship. Because they are forbidden to marry, they can only cohabitate; because they cohabitate--incapable of making that "public promise"--they are labeled loose-moraled, promiscuous, and a threat to Society As We Know It. How can they win?

I just don't buy this "cohabitation means you're not serious" thing. Perhaps it's a generational thing? Or an urban thing? I'm 31, and the three couples I know who did not cohabit before they were married, and married young -- are divorced. All of the couples I know who are happily married did, in fact, cohabitate. Two of these couples met in high school; one were together 15 years before finally getting married -- not because they were "finally" committed, but so that one could have health insurance in a crappy economy (during the last recession, their city's unemployment rate was one of the worst in the country), and so that, specifically, if anything happened to either of them, any property they might have (or any other assets) would go to their partner. Their relationship was already publicly permanent and committed, and had been for many years...they were just making things easier for them in the eyes of the law.

Interestingly, one's mother came out as a lesbian during the course of this relationship (she has been in a committed partnership for over 20 years now -- this may have played a part in the couple's feeling that marriage was not necessary for them to have a stable, loving, long-term relationship, but they may have witnessed just how many things would be easier for them if they were married).

I know many straight couples who refuse in principle to get married until their gay friends also have that right -- and the legal rights it affords (access to Social Security after a partner's death, health insurance, parenting rights, sick leave to care for spouse or non-biological child, bereavement leave, ability to file wrongful death claims, right to shared property, automatic inheritance of social retirement funds, pensions etc., ability to file joint taxes/bankruptcy, ability to invoke spousal privilege in the court of law, etc.).

Marriage is a social and legal construct in addition to whatever you make it. Some people want and/or need the social legitimacy; some want and/or need the legal legitimacy; others do not. Neither is necessarily better than the other. What all healthy couples ultimately need is legitimacy between the couple...and not all couples have that.

Aaron said...

Would it not be too hard to do a study about cohab and marriage where the samples were sufficiently stratified, and come up with a real answer to confirm our suspicions?

I mean, we can also banty about the stats that show that divorce is higher in the bible belt than other regions, which are presumably less religious.

That aside, some things I would like to see:

* Age of cohabitors
* Timing of the first child
* Socioeconomic status of the cohabitors
* Previous marriages of the cohabitors
* Number of times the cohabitors work out, per week

That would, perhaps, give us enough information to debunk the (post hoc ergo propter hoc) notion that cohabitation causes divorce.

John Cowan said...

Another couple of data points:

My wife has had two marriages, both preceded by cohabitation. The second one is to me, and is still going strong after 26 years of cohabitation (in the broader sense) and 21 years of marriage: we tend to treat the former figure as the important one.

Her first marriage was, in her present view, essentially a misguided attempt to shore up a foundering cohabitation. She and her first husband cohabited for several years, then got married and almost immediately ceased to cohabit, and then several years later got divorced. Before and after this, she participated in several cohabitation relationships.

My parents' marriage was preceded by many years of cohabitation (and this was back in the 1950s when that was far from usual); they too tended to treat the years of cohabitation and the date of moving in together as more significant than the years of marriage and the wedding anniversary. My father was not yet divorced when he began cohabiting with my mother (all parties are dead now, so there's no feelings to hurt). In mere years, each marriage lasted about the same length of time, but clearly it was the second marriage that was the successful one.

Anonymous said...

First, how about turning on your site feed so my RSS reader can be alerted to new posts? Makes a difference. Randy Barnett's link got me over here, but that feed will remind me to come back.

Second, thanks for the tip about Buss. I started studying this mess with Irven DeVore back in 1968. It's fascinating. I read two Buss studies tonight and saved the page to read more.

Third, I haven't read the study you took off on, but what was the total time spent in these combo cohabit/marry relationships? There's a burnout factor, and the total years together is more important than the official duration. And were there offspring of the union? That's an important solidarity factor that has to be calculated as part of causation of longevity.

In closing, I've got a handful of sociobiology things, one sexual and one about religion and war, IIRC, on my blog. Click on over through my profile if you have time.

Oh, and you may want to turn on word verification for comments, because you'll soon get ad comment spam if you don't. Happy new year. And I presume you turned on email notification of new comments, because you're responding, which I like.

David Friedman said...

Wintermute writes:

"First, how about turning on your site feed so my RSS reader can be alerted to new posts?"

It's turned on on the settings, and has been for some time--I don't know if it is actually working or not.

"Third, I haven't read the study you took off on..."

Nor have I--I was taking off from a comment in Brinig's book.

Anonymous said...

OK, generalizing from mine, your site feed URL should be:

I just tried that and it works.

The template you chose does not have a links box on the right, but it does have a place you can put your site feed. Look toward the bottom of your template in edit mode and you'll see a place with the words "This is a paragraph of text that could go in the sidebar." surrounded by paragraph and comment tags. Replace all of that, including the comment tags with the text shown on the help page referenced below, and people can right click on the resulting link and paste it into their reader or use whatever method. Instructions for this can be found at:

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Anonymous said...

a)It is without dispute that young marriages are much more likely to end in divorce
b) marriage of partners post 30 are less likely to end in divorce
c) however ...then factor into that the following facts
-2nd marriages ( partners usually over 30yrs )have a much higher divorce rate
-co-habitees are much more likely to divorce ( copious research on this particularly from Scandanavia/ Netherlands who have co-habited for much longer than the UK and therefore have a much stronger data cohort )
-fewer people are marrying

in my experience and I am considerably more than 30 --70% of my friends are divorced
-Those who are either married in their early 20s or co-habited -or both
-no-one in my family is divorced ..strangely no -one co habited and no-one married younger than 30
-Children may or may not break or make marriages ( further refinement of that indicate that a maled child reduces paternal abandonment

and so it goes belief would be familiarity breeds contempt in many people ..not all ..but many ..people live longer and are less willing to stay with someone who is less than perfect ...surely that is a good thing !

Anonymous said...

Have just read this interesting blog and agree with the above I have cohabited twice the first after 6 months we realised we had made a mistake and the second we married after 9mths of cohabitation and have recently got divorced after 18 years as I was less willing of staying with someone who was less than perfect for the rest of my life we all change so much over the years and are living longer and finding faults in one another as the years go on some of us can accept those changes in personality and some can't I couldn't but in hine sight I should of got divorced after my youngest son had left home not that our divorce has affected him but from a selfish point that I miss them terribly