- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Whenever Pamela J. Smock and Wendy D. Manning write about cohabiting, I pay attention. These two sociology professors (at University of Michigan and Bowling Green State University, respectively) have been studying this new family phenomenon for a long time.

This summer, they wrote an article for the National Council on Family Relations newsletter based on interviews with more than 350 young adults. Most respondents had cohabited or were cohabiting; they represented a wide range of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Divorce was a key interview topic: Did these young people think premarital cohabiting raised the risk for divorce? Did they think premarital cohabiting “divorce-proofed” their union? Were there no hard or fast answers to these questions?

The young people told Ms. Smock and Ms. Manning that they were keenly aware of divorce.

Many had come from divorced homes; some had divorced themselves. And divorce seemed so common in their communities that, as one young cohabiting woman put it, it’s easy to know “more divorced people than married people.”

They, therefore, viewed cohabiting as a “shield” against divorce because:

• It allowed a man and woman to “discover the ‘real’ person in their partner.” (Cohabitation is “where you find out if they really do brush their teeth before going to bed,” said one respondent.)

• It revealed domestic compatibility. (“[Y]ou could love one another but not be able to live with each other. Like if he is [a] slob and I’m very clean, I would have a big problem with that,” said one woman.)

• It gave couples insight into each other’s abilities to solve problems and manage life.

• It removed uncertainty, at least in the short term. (“I think living together gives you that edge on people who don’t live together before marriage, because you know what they’re gonna be like,” said one man.)

Certainly, some of the couples expected to marry, but others viewed cohabiting as the furthest they were willing to go.

“Everyone in my family has gotten a divorce. Everyone gets divorces. … I’m not gonna go through that. I’m not gonna take the gamble,” said one respondent.

Or, as another man said, “… I think [cohabitation] is a good thing. I really do … the divorce rate’s really high, you feel like you’re married, there’s no reason to go downtown and sign a piece of paper.”

Finally, the professors asked the married respondents, most of whom had lived with each other before their wedding days, what they thought cohabiting did for their marriages.

Their answers were mostly sanguine, Ms. Smock and Ms. Manning said. “They spoke to us about the value of cohabitation in terms of providing insight into ‘socks and toothpaste’ issues, who the ‘real’ person is, and how these discovery processes and practices make divorce less likely.”

For these and other reasons, about two-thirds of modern newlyweds say they lived together before marrying, the professors note.

In fact, they predict, cohabiting is likely to become so popular that it will become “increasingly rare” for couples to not live together before marriage. The only people who refuse to cohabit will be “a more select group possessing the most traditional values.”

I highlight this study because its authors are top-notch, and it shows the “settling in” of the idea that premarital cohabiting is a smart thing to do.

However, I am not at all convinced that cohabiting is good for men, women, marriage or children, and will offer some observations about those things soon.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at

cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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