More Evidence: Cohabitation Is Poor Training for Marriage

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Thursday, July 11, 2002

By Heide Seward, Research Fellow

The author of a new study on cohabitation and marriage says his research suggests that women should beware of men who are a little too willing to live in a cohabiting relationship before marriage. They may turn out to be poor marriage prospects. Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is scheduled to present his findings at a “Smart Marriages” conference this week in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. A recent article in USA Today summarized Stanley’s remarks on the subject: “Men who either drift into marriage ‘through inertia’ following a cohabiting arrangement or who are ‘dragged down the aisle’ by women who finally put their feet down are not good marriage risks.”

Certainly the statistics support his contention that cohabitation does not lead to marital stability. Many young couples look upon cohabitation as a way of inoculating themselves against divorce. In fact, couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not cohabit before marriage. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Is it simply that the same men and women who favor cohabitation are likely to be less committed to marriage anyway? Or, is there something about the experience of cohabitation itself that has a negative effect on future marital stability? The research seems to suggest that both factors may have an effect. Several studies suggest that the cohabitation experience may actually encourage a more negative attitude toward marriage.

In the 2002 edition of their National Marriage Project study, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, released in June, David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead report similar conclusions regarding the reluctance of young men to commit to marriage and the growing social acceptance of cohabitation as a prelude to marriage –and, increasingly, as a substitute for it. Their survey of unmarried men age 20-29 found that, although most expressed a desire to marry and have children at some point in their lives, they were in no hurry to find a wife, and more than 44 percent said they would only marry someone who agreed to live with them beforehand. Some of their reasons had to do with the financial and other responsibilities associated with marriage –and with divorce. Others had to do with the lack of necessity for marriage. Among their “Ten reasons why men won’t commit,” the top two are:

  • They can get sex without marriage more easily than in the past.
  • They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.

In another –perhaps wiser –time, there was a saying that has relevance here: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” At first glance this may seem merely an indictment of irresponsible men. But it also offers a challenge to the women who enable them. While many marriage researchers –including those mentioned above –agree that they are more likely to be the worse matrimonial foot-draggers, it is also true that they behave that way in part because women allow them to get away with it, and also because women themselves are less committed to their marriages today than in previous generations. In fact, women initiate most divorces, and if children are involved women usually have the upper hand when it comes to battles over child custody.

Despite radical feminists’ longstanding insistence that men and women are equal in every respect, common sense –and, increasingly, social science –keeps telling us otherwise. The truth is that women and men simply have different agendas when it comes to sexual behavior. Women are generally the ones who provide the impetus in a relationship for commitment, largely because they are the ones more likely to begin thinking earlier about the needs of children. Women feel that imperative more than men, because their child-bearing years are limited. Men generally do not feel the same compulsion to settle down unless they are given some incentive to do so. Men are human, and as such they will tend to take the path of least resistance unless they have good reason to do otherwise. Like it or not, it is women who must provide that incentive by challenging men to get serious about their behavior toward women. One way they can do this is by reserving sex for marriage. In other words, they can insist, as they once did, that men MARRY THEM FIRST.

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