Monday, October 22, 2007

Cohabitation, marital quality and resistance to reason

Some background

Progressive folk in the second half of the twentieth century thought that cohabitation would improve the prospects for marriage, and eventually significant segments of the public have come to agree (e.g., in 1984, 77% of Canadians were accepting of cohabitation for those couples that "want to make sure that their future marriage will last"). Practice makes perfect, after all, and through cohabitation a couple might find that they are not "a good fit", so such cohabitation, they thought, would be a good thing for marital quality and duration. (Of course these arguments have defeaters: practice at cohabitation is not the same thing as practice at marriage, and close proximity might blind one to whether someone is a good fit.)

Then in 1988, Booth and Johnson published a study showing a strong correlation between premarital cohabitation and divorce--over the three-year course of their study 5% of those who had not cohabited divorced while 9% of those who had cohabited divorced. Moreover, while controlling for demographic factors decreased the disparity, it did not remove the disparity. Since then, a stream of sociological publications confirmed the correlation between cohabitation and subsequent divorce, as well as between cohabitation and poorer marital interaction style (lest one think that this is all an artifact of the fact that duration is a poor measure of marital quality).

There is no controversy that correlation is a fact. But correlation does not show causation. Although there are some studies that suggest causation (e.g., apparently the strength of belief in the permanence of marriage decreases with the length of cohabitation), and although several mechanisms have been proposed (e.g., the mechanism of drifting into a marriage with people whom one would not have married had one not cohabitated with them), we are not in a position to say that cohabitation causes poorer marital interaction or divorce.

However, we are in a position to see that there is no reason to believe the view that cohabitation in general improves marital prospects. That is just not what the data show.

My students

In my Philosophy of Love and Sex class at Georgetown, I would have my students read some of the sociological papers on the correlation between cohabitation and marital problems. Now, here is something interesting. Even after we have read and discussed all of that research, I would still hear a student saying that they couldn't marry someone they hadn't lived with, because it would be too risky.

Now, I could understand not being convinced by the case for cohabitation causing these problems (I am not completely convinced myself). But that one would continue to think that cohabitation helps with marriage after having seen the data is rather disappointing.

I think one thing this shows is just how resilient deeply ingrained social beliefs, especially ones supported by plausible-seeming arguments (the practice and test-for-fit arguments), are in even quite intelligent people (my students were generally very smart). No surprise there.

Another potential mechanism could be a dismissal of the idea that statistical data on behavioral patterns has a bearing on one's own decisions. We have free will, after all, so we might think that the fact that the statistics do or do not show something about patterns of behavior is irrelevant--we can, with our own free will, choose to be exceptions to the statistics. Now, I believe in incompatibilistic free will, but I also accept the indubitable fact that our behavior is influenced by all kinds of factors, some of them amenable to statistical study--the free-will argument just isn't very good here. Moreover, the free-will argument would equally undercut the idea of cohabiting for the sake of improving future marital success--for if our behavior is all really up to us, with no external influence, then whether the couple cohabits or not, marital success is in the hands of the couple.


Vlastimil Vohánka said...


Do you know a mechanism called the reduction of cognitive dissonance? It could be efficient here, and also in every dispute about issues that matters, e.g. philosophical, religious, ethical or sexual issues. See
chris/crmscreen.pdf , chapter 19.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, cognitive dissonance is a serious issue here. I begin the discussion in class with talking how some results of scientific research are really counterintuitive and go against common sense. That maybe helps reduce cognitive dissonance, by warning one against bias, but it obviously doesn't do enough.

Moreover, it is a healthy attitude to be cautious about recent scientific results that contradict common sense. If a study just came out showing that the healthiest diet consists simply in drinking coke--no solids, no fruit, just coke--it would be stupid to give up on a common-sensical balanced diet. Still, when study after study has essentially the same result, and the question is an empirically accessible one, eventually we have to conclude that common sense is wrong, and the earth isn't flat or immobile.

Lydia McGrew said...

And the whole "try it first" attitude to cohabitation really _isn't_ common sense, anyway. It's what you might call "faux common sense." Nobody thought it was common sense 100 years ago, because people realized, by common sense, that sex and marriage aren't like buying a car.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You're right, of course, if "common sense" has either some evaluative meaning, or else is not relativized to a time or culture.

Jay Watts said...

I think that marriage is so worldview influenced that studying certain specific aspects of it will always give you interesting data but no real causal answers. I know that is simple, but my own Christian worldview offers a very limited set of conditions where marriage is ended absent of violating moral duties I understand to wiegh on my actions. Because I must make the marriage "work" I do not do 100 other things in the course of our daily life together that I might otherwise do. For example, I do not have a win at all cost attitude about arguments because arguments are not a zero sum game. Certain lines are forever watched and I am mindful of them in all that we do. I dearly love my wife, but I also understand myself to be committed to her in way that is not a reality for a materialist or even a cultural Christian.

I guess that is stating the extremely obvious, but the same moral intuitions that lead someone to NOT cohabitate ultimately should most often coincide with the moral intuitions that lead them to take the details that might threaten their committed relationship more seriously.

That seems to speak as to why those who are not seeing a moral component to cohabitation, which is increasingly common in the young Christians that I work with in ministry, can not make a personal connection with statistic norms. They seem to feel that cohabitation is not a moral issue, but a hang up of a an older generation similar to Southern Baptist restrictions on dancing. So they fail to see a connection with cohabitation, which they see as harmless and practical, and divorce, which most of the young people I talk to still see in moral terms. Though even with divorce, the moral dut is a bit more relaxed.

For what it is worth.

Great post by the way.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but suspect that, in many such cases, the "deeply ingrained social beliefs" are functioning as a rationalization for one's wants.

Anonymous said...

I have not read the studies. And I do not want to question their results. However, I wonder whether there is more specific data that attempts to measure the quality or satisfaction in the marriages of cohabitaters and non-cohabitaters. We can agree that divorce and non-divorce are one indicator of "marital prospects", but surely there are others. Such date could afford a potential rebuttal of Alex's strong "no reason to believe" claim. Specifically, if cohabs are generally happier than non-cohabs, even though they have a higher divorce rate, then there is a relevant and robust sense in which there is *a* reason to think cohabitating helps.

Notice also that it's possible (even plausible) that the people who are inclined to non-cohab are also people inclined to avoid divorce when the marriage gets difficult; conversely, people that are inclined to cohab are also people that are inclined to divorce when things get difficult. If this were true, it would assist in understanding or explaining the discrepancy in the data groups. I would imagine the researchers address this. I think this would further problematize Alex's "no reason to believe" claim, which would be based on a problematic comparison.

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is a good question. In the post I allude to a correlation between cohabitation and poorer marital interaction styles. This was a due to a study that found a link between cohabitation and poorer communication methods (e.g., being more controlling, or making more negative remarks). Intuitively, this should in turn be linked with lower marital satisfaction, and I think I once did come across a study that showed a correlation between cohabitation and lower marital satisfaction.

One subtlety that I haven't mentioned in the post (but which I do go into in class) is that some of the apparently better studies find that it matters a lot whether the cohabitation was with the same person one is married to or with someone else. According to two studies, at least one of which was excellent, cohabitation with the person that one then marries does not correlate with a higher (or lower) divorce rate. And according to one study, cohabitation after engagement is not correlated with poorer marital communication, except in respect to the quantity of negative comments.

So there is a correlation between divorce and cohabitation, as well as between divorce and poorer marital communication. In the divorce case, most of the correlation seems to be due to a strong correlation between divorce and cohabitation-with-someone-other-than-the-spouse. If the latter correlation is causal, then this may give a reason not to cohabitate unless one knows that one will marry the person. In particular, it then gives a reason not to cohabitate just to try things out, since then ex hypothesi one does not know that one will marry the person. (I am not saying that cohabitation with the person one will marry is a good idea, but simply that these studies do not say that it's not.)

My excuse for not mentioning the subtlety, apart from issues of length, is that even with the subtlety, the statistics do not bear out the notion that cohabitation as a trial marriage is a good idea, and suggest that it's not.