- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009


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.

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