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Living Together Often Weakens Chances For Long Happy Marriage


NC Family President John Rustin talks with Scott Stanley, Ph.D., Co-director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at the University of Denver, about his research regarding cohabitation and why couples should think twice before moving in together before marriage.

“Family Policy Matters”
Transcript: Living Together Often Weakens Chances For Long Happy Marriage

INTRODUCTION: Scott Stanley, Ph.D., is Co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, is Senior Fellow for the Institute for Family Studies in Virginia, and is the co-author of the book, A Lasting Promise. Dr. Stanley and his colleagues study marriage and romantic relationships, and we are going to be talking with him today about the latest research that they have done on cohabitation, and why most experts consider living together outside of marriage as a pitfall for relationships, especially for couples who desire a long and lasting marriage.

JOHN RUSTIN: Cohabitation is increasingly popular among young people today, particularly Millennials, and it seems that many young women and men view moving in together as simply a “next step” in a dating relationship. How common is cohabiting today, and in your opinion, why is it so popular, especially among younger folks?

SCOTT STANLEY: It’s become very common, so of the young couples marrying for the first time today, roughly 70 percent of them will have lived together before marriage. That doesn’t actually even speak to just how prevalent it is now because there’s many other people that are increasingly likely never to get married, but who will have cohabited with a number of partners. So, cohabitation has increased a lot, and I think the reason it’s increased is you know we went through this period of so much divorce and family instability, and all that really started right around 1970, through the 70’s and into the 80’s. Things leveled off a bit, but family instability became the norm, and people began to really fear marriage, and fear that marriage could work out, and cohabitation is perceived by people to be relatively without cost or risk, and I think that has made it very popular relative to marriage.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Stanley, I know you’ve cautioned young people who want to have a lasting marriage to “be careful about cohabiting” because of it’s and I quote “ambiguous” nature. Tell us what you mean by that.

SCOTT STANLEY: One of the biggest changes in the last 40 years in romantic relationships and how people do things before they settle down in marriage, and then of course for family development, is that relationships now are very ambiguous. And I believe that’s motivated because I think people feel safer when things are ambiguous. Almost as if our society has made a grand bargain believing that, well if it’s not real clear what I actually want, if I don’t make it real clear, I’m going to be hurt less if I don’t get it, if things don’t turn out. But you can see this, people wonder if like they’re going to go out Friday night together in some way. Is it a date? That’s ambiguous now, what a date is. Breaking up is ambiguous now—people do what I call “soft breakups,” where it’s sort of not really clear that it’s over and keep people on the back burner. Hook-ups, of course, are very ambiguous. Cohabitation itself, fundamentally, I think it’s partly popular because it doesn’t tend to require people to be really clear about commitment, and cohabitation without knowing anything else about a couple, doesn’t turn out to tell you about how committed they actually are to each other.

JOHN RUSTIN: What about cohabitation and the impacts that it has on men and women? I believe that you have stated that cohabitation may actually be worse for women in terms of the risks associated with it, than it may be for men. Talk about that a little bit.

SCOTT STANLEY: In terms of developing relationships, young adulthood, and romantic relationships, cohabiting, family formation, there is a difference that’s substantial, and it stems from a very simple fact that: women can get pregnant, not all women but most women can get pregnant, and men can’t. And that means there’s a lot more at stake at times for women to get deeply involved, or into a relationship, that isn’t very good or where they start to get trapped or where they make it prematurely like in cohabitation difficult to break up. Women have a lot more to lose if things don’t turn out well. And just one very specific example, unplanned pregnancies are much more common in cohabiting unions than in married unions. An unplanned pregnancy is a risk for the child, it’s a risk for the woman, and it’s a risk for the relationship. Women especially are more likely than men to be taking care of children when a relationship has ended. And cohabiting relationships being much more likely to end than marriage makes it a riskier proposition on average for women.

JOHN RUSTIN: You’ve sort of touched on this already, but I know that many young people think that moving in together is often a signal of commitment. It’s that natural next step for the development of this relationship, then we’re expressing a greater commitment to each other if we move in together, some might say. But what has your research taught you regarding the commitment levels and experience of most cohabiting couples?

SCOTT STANLEY: Yes, so let me make a conceptual point, and then say a couple of research points. If I meet a couple for the first time, like at a party or a person that’s in a relationship, and they’re telling me about the relationship, and I don’t know anything else about them, if they tell me they’re cohabiting, I don’t really know anything about their commitment. If they tell me they’re engaged, I know a lot about commitment, and if they tell me they’re married, I know a lot about commitment. I may not know whether it’s a good, healthy relationship or not, or how well they get along. But cohabitation itself doesn’t really convey much information about commitment. And this is where a lot of people get trapped is that one person might be thinking that this really means something, that this means we’re progressing toward marriage; whereas from a research standpoint, big data sets in the U.S. show that people who move in together as young adults now are more likely to break up than ever marry. Whereas, even 20 years ago, if you had a couple that moved in together, they were pretty likely to then take the step toward marriage. So what a lot of people miss is when you have an ambiguous relationship like cohabiting, if one person’s thinking, well this really means something about commitment, but they haven’t talked about that and clarified it with the other, they could be really deceiving themselves. And what we see is that when people move in together, and it’s not real clear what the future is or what it means, the odds that one person is pretty much more committed than the other is significant, and it’s a lot higher, and sometimes people are fooling themselves thinking that because this person’s willing to move in with me they’re willing to commit to me.

JOHN RUSTIN: Interesting. I know that you’ve described cohabiting is more like, “cohabit-dating.” And I like that term. Explain that term for us, if you will, and how likely are most cohabiting couples to actually make it to down the aisle?

SCOTT STANLEY: Yes, I like that term too! I came up with it a couple of years ago, and I like playing with words. Cohabit-dating is a great term because it describes what’s happened. So, again, even 15-20 years ago, cohabiting was for many a step toward marriage. And we’ve already transitioned through that as a society, where starting about 10 years or so ago, we transitioned to the point where most people who live together will not get married. And in fact for many people when they move in with somebody, they may not be thinking this, but it’s really going to be the start of living with maybe several different people before they finally settle down in marriage. Researchers call that “serial cohabitation,” and serial cohabitation is associated with really high risks for marriages not working out. There’s a lot of complex reasons why that’s the case, but part of the problem with cohabiting in general that people don’t see is it makes it harder to break up. So a lot of times this has just become sort of part of the dating scene now, they’re doing something that actually is making it harder to break up, long before they’ve made any mutually clear, public decision as a couple, that we’re planning a life together. And that’s risky, and so it doesn’t turn out so well for a lot of people.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Stanley, what impact does cohabiting have, of course prior to marriage, on the quality of marriage for those cohabiting couples who ultimately do get married. And does it have an impact, based on your research, on the risk of divorce after that marriage takes place?

SCOTT STANLEY: For decades, studies have shown that living together before marriage is associated with marriages not doing so well as the couples who do not live together before marriage. Now, that’s changed somewhat in the last 15 years, and you’ll hear researchers say that now there’s no more risk associated with living together before marriage. But that’s not what we find. We find over and over again in six published studies, and it’s a very reliable finding, that those who wait till marriage, or who at least wait till they’re engaged, (and I’m making a research point here not a theological point) they look very different on average in marriages than the people that live together before there’s that clarity and commitment to a future together. That’s where the research is at. Now, I still think it’s best for somebody to wait all the way to marriage because then things are totally clear, you know people have gathered around you, they’re supporting you as a couple, you’ve totally nailed down the commitment before you move in together. I think that’s really best for people. But it’s also pretty clear that the highest risk, not dooming people, but much higher risk, is when people just move in together without clarifying anything, and then eventually get married, those marriages don’t look as good on average.

JOHN RUSTIN: Well Dr. Stanley, what advice would you give young men and women who might be considering moving in together before marriage?

SCOTT STANLEY: Here’s some questions people could ask themselves, if, whatever else they believe, they’re really still thinking very seriously about moving in with somebody: “Am I really ready to make it harder to break up with this person? Why would that be better than dating without having the same place to live?” Another great question: “Is this other person as committed to me as I am to them, or am I fooling myself about what that means for them, vs. what I’m thinking and feeling?” Which relates to the next question: “Have you talked about this it with this person—what does it actually mean, does it mean we’re planning to get married, if it does mean we’re planning to get married does that mean we’re ready to be engaged?” Maybe your going to wish you’d preserved the sense that when you moved into marriage it was this very clear transition. A lot of times when people are living together before marriage, even if many other things are fine about their relationship, on their wedding day, they’re often feeling a little melancholy, that “Wow, what’s going to actually be different, what’s the big transition?” And that is a big transition, let me be clear, but it’s not as big a transition as now we’re really moving in together and starting life. And then the last question for the individual here, those are all really important questions, if you’re afraid to talk about those things or even ask yourself those questions, much less talk to your partner, you’re certainly not ready to move in with that person.

JOHN RUSTIN: I think those are great questions for folks to consider, absolutely. And, I know that our listeners are maybe thinking, “Hey, those are really good questions, I may know somebody who is considering moving with somebody outside of a marriage relationship, and this is some information I really might like to share with them because I think it is critically important because I really care about those individuals.” Share with our listeners, if you would before we leave, Dr. Stanley, where they can go to get more information about your research on cohabitation and marriage, and other topics that you study?

SCOTT STANLEY: I write a lot about cohabitation on my blog, which is SlidingvsDeciding. I’ve also have written a number of important articles on cohabitation at the Institute For Family Studies blog. We also have a little four-minute video on You Tube that’s called “Relationship DUI” and people can just Google that, and they might see something in that that they’d want to share with somebody that’s grappling with these things right now in their life.

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