Why are cohabiting couples so unstable
By Harry Benson
Why Are Cohabiting Couples So Unstable?
One of most robust yet least well-known findings in social science is that couples who live together before deciding to marry are more likely to split up or have future marital problems. Some of this due to selection: for example, poorer couples are both more likely to cohabit but then also more likely to split up. However it is increasingly recognized that the experience of cohabitation itself also contributes to future instability: one example of this is that the gap in relationship quality between married couples who did and did not cohabit remains the same despite today's widespread experience and acceptability of cohabitation. My recent study of family breakdown in the UK highlights the instability of cohabiting couples, even after taking age, income, education, ethnic group and benefits receipt into account.
I've mentioned commitment theory many times before in our website. A new paper by Scott Stanley and others, published in the October issue of Family Relations, elaborates on how commitment theory provides a compelling explanation for why cohabitation is not all it's cut out to be. A whole new generation of research is likely to emerge from this perspective.
Stanley points out that many or most couples tend to slide into cohabitation and then get stuck in a less than ideal relationship by default. Many couples admit that they can't remember when their “cohabitation” started. A recent study shows how one third of couples couldn't agree on their start date to within three months. We notice this at BCFT when couples fill in their pre-marriage FOCCUS questionnaires. Couples frequently give wildly different estimates for how long they have been “courting”.
The lack of clarity over when the relationship started is also reflected in the view that men and women see commitment in different ways. A flow of new studies are beginning to show how men tend to have a lower sense of commitment and willingness to sacrifice, especially if they have slid into cohabitation rather than made a decision.
This theory challenges a number of widely held views: that cohabitation is a clearly definable state rather than a variable feast; that cohabitation is an alternative to marriage when it is more often an alternative to being single; and that cohabitation is a good way to test a relationship. Perhaps the most important observation from this report is how cohabitation makes it harder for couples to exit from a less than ideal relationship. Simply talking about expectations would achieve the same goal without the additional risk – a day on BCFT's LLL course for example!
Reference: Stanley, S., Rhoades, G., & Markman, H. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the pre-marital cohabitation effect. Family relations, 55, 499-509.