Over the last fifty years, there has been a quiet shift in the landscape of family life in America. Approximately two-thirds of couples live together before marriage; this number is compared to one-half of couples 20 years ago, according to The Pew Research Center.
Recently, Rand sociologists who study family demographics, surveyed 2,600 couples who lived together without marriage. One of the most important findings of this study is that young adults who cohabitated had lower levels of commitment than those who marry. Further, couples who cohabitate report lower levels of certainty about the future of their relationships, especially if they are males.
This “commitment gap” has been studied by sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris who found that cohabitating males have a lower level of commitment to their relationship than their female partners. This “commitment gap” was also researched by psychologists Scott Stanley and Galena Rhodes who discovered that women who live with their future husband prior to becoming engaged are 40% more likely to divorce than those who are engaged before moving in together.
Interestingly, many couples in America today believe that living together prior to tying the knot will decrease their chances of getting a divorce. However, researchers Stanley and Rhodes have demonstrated the “cohabitation effect” – showing that couples who cohabit before marriage are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce.
According to Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, studies have shown that not all of the effect can be explained by demographics such as politics, education, or religion. Jay writes, “Research suggests that at least some of the effect may lie in cohabitation itself.” She posits that one of the main factors that put cohabitating couples at risk for breakup is “sliding not deciding.” This means that a couple gradually decides to move in together mostly out of convenience rather than discussing their expectations and plans for the future.
One thing is for certain, researchers have found that before you decide to live with someone, it is incredibly important that you and your partner are on the same page. Dr. John Curtis, author of Happily Unmarried highlights the “expectation gap” as a critical consideration before moving in with your partner. He states that the fundamental difference between men and women according to a recent Rand Study is that many women view living together as a step towards marriage while many men see it as a test drive.
It’s no secret that marriage rates are on the decline. In 1960, 72% of Americans were married. Today approximately 50% are. Understandably, there’s a lot of fear about marriage. Since the divorce rate has hovered around 50% for decades, the question for many is: Why marry when there is one in two chances it won’t work out? However, what many people forget is that just because a couple isn’t married when they breakup it doesn’t mean they don’t have issues to resolve such as financial claims (related to property or combined assets); as well as the custody of children.
As the rate of couples who live together without being married are rising dramatically, children in America are more likely to experience cohabitation than divorce, according to W. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Many experts, including Wilcox conclude that cohabitation puts children at risk for psychological and academic problems as well as child abuse. Wilcox notes that cohabitation also creates more instability for children.
He writes, “A recent study from Drs. Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass found that 65% of children born to cohabitating parents saw their parents break up by age 12, compared to 24% born to married families.” Since 40% of children in the US will experience the divorce of their parents prior to the age of 16, this is an important topic to explore.
If you’re a single parent who is considering cohabitation what are the risks to your children? In my opinion, you need to consider that your children may see your partner as an intruder – as a complication they don’t want in their lives – who is a rival with their father.
In addition, if the relationship doesn’t last, they may see it as yet another loss (in addition to your divorce) if they’ve established a bond. In What About the Kids, the late Judith Wallerstein writes, “If they genuinely grow to like or even love the person you’ve invited into your lives and that person disappears one night, it’s another loss. It’s frightening when people disappear and it’s awful to feel rejected.”
Let’s take a look at some statistics that shed light on this topic:
- Over 50% of couples who cohabitate before marriage are broken up within five years (Cherlin, 2009)
- Over 75% of children born to couples who are not married no longer live with both parents by the age of fifteen (Cherlin, 2009)
- 47% of American women who give birth in their twenties are unmarried at the time (Cherlin, New York Times, 4/27/2013)
Considering the research, if you’re a divorced parent contemplating cohabiting, proceed with caution. Ask yourself: What are your motivations for living together? If you want to develop a deeper bond, and most significantly, you see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, having differing expectations from your partner may be a problem.
If you decide to cohabitate these are steps to minimize damage to your children:
- Sit down with your partner and clarify your expectations about the future. This can enhance your chances of remaining in a committed relationship.
- Be careful not to bypass these discussions and fall into “sliding not deciding,” according to author Meg Jay.
- Don’t ask your children’s permission to cohabitate – this is too much responsibility for them and will be harder for them to recover from if you breakup.
- Discuss parenting strategies such as how you are going to handle conflicts that will arise with children and between them – especially if you are blending families.
- Prepare your children carefully. Make sure they’ve met the person many times and feel comfortable with them. Reassure your children that they are still a priority and that your partner will not replace their biological parent.
- Set household routines that accommodate your partner and your children. Have regular discussions and share meals together so you can check in about how household issues are going.
Before you make the decision about whether or not to cohabitate, consider the risks to your children if it doesn’t work out. Ask yourself: Am I selling myself short by moving in with my partner? Would cohabitation put my children at risk for instability, psychological, or academic problems?
Weigh the advantages of tying the knot before having children or delaying cohabiting until your children launch if you’re a parent. In the end, consider that your children may grow to genuinely like or love this person and if the relationship ends, it’s yet another loss. However, if you decide to cohabitate, approach your new lifestyle with optimism and confidence – because you’ve taken all the steps to enhance your chances of success.
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