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Together too soon

Despite popular myths, cohabitation is destructive to couples, children, and society

Issue: "Rocks in their heads?," Sept. 11, 2010

Many college students and recent graduates slide into cohabitation, and some don't see that as a crucial problem. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) recently issued a report asserting "a 65 percent chance that first cohabitation for men and women would transition to marriage within 5 years." The report claimed that the "probability that a woman's marriage would last at least 10 years" was nearly the same for those who first cohabited (60 percent) as for those "who did not cohabit before marriage (66 percent)."

Those statistics bulwark three widespread myths of cohabitation, but I analyze the data differently:

Myth 1: Cohabitation is a step to marriage. The number of cohabiting couples soared 13-fold from 523,000 in 1970 to 6.8 million in 2008-but only 1.4 million of them married that year. The average cohabitation lasts 18 months, which means there are about 4.6 million new cohabitations each year. Only 30 percent "transitioned into marriage," not 65 percent.

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The 70 percent of couples who separate after living together experience a "premarital divorce," which can be as painful as a real divorce. Millions who do so lose their self-confidence and never do marry. Cohabitation seduces millions who believed they could test the possibility of marriage without commitment.

Women suffer especially. Many who cohabited and broke up are shattered. They feel used and embittered. What was hoped to be a prelude to marriage ends with squandered time that cannot be recaptured.

Myth 2: Living together is a trial marriage. No. It is more like a "trial divorce," in which the question is whether a breakup will occur before or after the wedding.

A 1989 study by Larry Bumpass reported, "Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50 percent higher disruption rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation." Why? At that time many cohabiting couples were poor, less-educated children of divorce or of non-marriage. When they experienced strife they were less able to work through problems and more likely to give up.

Later, Paul Amato of Penn State wondered if the odds changed as those from middle-class backgrounds and intact homes cohabited. In comparing those who married in the 1980s with those who did so from 1995 to 2002, he found the risk of divorce actually increased. They were 61 percent more likely to divorce than those living separately before marrying.

One survey, the PREPARE/ENRICH inventory, looked at 35,684 couples who prepared for marriage over six months. If a dating couple was cohabiting, 48 percent had very conflicted relationships, compared with 16 percent of couples living apart.

Why is cohabitation so destructive? Another Penn State study found that those who cohabited even only for one month displayed poorer communication and problem-solving skills than those who had not lived together first. Many who cohabit apparently lose respect for themselves and the other person. Couples who lived separately beforehand have more self-respect and more respect for their spouse.

Myth 3: What we do is nobody's business. Not true. When individuals cohabit, it is not a private matter but a public one. The NCHS study reports that "by 2001 the majority of non-marital births (52 percent) occurred within cohabiting unions." The overall number of unwed births began surging in the 1960s and is still growing: 1.4 million children were born out of wedlock in 2001, and 1.7 million in 2007.

Children of cohabitation are often brought up by single, welfare-dependent mothers. They pay a price, but so do others: A Heritage Foundation study estimates that the 13 million single-parent families cost taxpayers $20,000 per family in 2004, a total of $260 billion. Half of that total comes from unwed births to cohabiting moms.

One reason the three myths are widely believed is that churches typically sidestep this issue: Have you ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?
-Mike McManus is president of Marriage Savers and co-author with his wife, Harriet, of Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers

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