In the last couple of decades there has been a dramatic change in family values and beliefs, which has created many alternatives to the conventional marriage and traditional family form. It used to be considered a disgrace not to marry, but now society seems to value independence instead of marriage, individual freedom over collective interests, and personal pleasure instead of nurturance. The vast majority of Americans still marries, have children, live in single-family households, and prefer permanent sexual exclusivity. But, increasingly, other life-styles are being introduced and individualism is being embraced.
One form of lifestyle that has become rather common is the cohabiting couple, an unmarried couple living together in an intimate sexual relationship. By 1994, there were 3.7 million such cohabiting couples in the United States, an increase of about 3 million couples since 1970, when the idea was still considered new and radical. As the practice of cohabitation has become more widespread in the United States, several researchers have attempted to identify the motivations and effects of this lifestyle. Authorities on the subject have concluded that the increasing prevalence of cohabitation is the result of: more permissive sexual standards, availability of contraception, legalization of abortion, delayed marriage due to increased educational and occupational opportunities for women, increased concerns about divorce, escalating house costs, and a trend toward pluralism in life-styles (Davidson & Moore, 1992).
Due to the overwhelming research on cohabitation, studies have indicated that there is a significant link between cohabitation and marital disruption. Marriages that are preceded by living together are said to have 50 to 100% higher disruption rates than marriage without premarital cohabitation (CLASP, 1998). Cohabitors are also more likely to come from families that have experienced marital instability, and they generally imitate what they encountered.
A 1991 study by Leora Black and Douglas Sprenkle (1991) compared the attitudes about divorce between young adults who had experienced divorce in their childhood and those from intact homes. The results of this study found that 55% of the divorced group was more favorable to cohabiting before marriage, and were a lot more skeptical about getting married than the intact group. In another study, Bumpass, Martin, and Sweet (1991) found that the rates of disruption were highest among those who married at a young age, those with lower education, and those who cohabited before marriage. It was also found that those who cohabited reported lower quality marriages and lower commitment to the institution of marriage, and that wives who cohabited had more individualistic views of marriage than those whom had not (Thomson & Collela, 1992).
Some authorities suggest that the reason for such a high divorce rate among those who cohabit is because of emotional insecurity and dependency needs (Newcomb, 1986). Newcomb believes that it is possible that the reason individuals cohabit is because of their need to be with someone, and perhaps as a result of this emotional instability they were quite unhappy about many areas of their life which resulted in more disrupted marriages. In other words, cohabitors might get into a relationship for the need of support but as they develop and mature they realize that they are involved in a destructive relationship.
Another effect that researchers have linked to cohabitation is the sharp decline in marriage rates and the high rate of marriage postponement. Only about one-half of first cohabitation unions end in marriage, and the longer a couple lives together the less likely it is that they will marry (CLASP, 1998). Patricia Gwartney-Gibbs (1986) studied the characteristics of premarital cohabitors versus non-cohabiting couples. In her study she found that not only did cohabitors experience unsuccessful and unstable marriages, she also found an overwhelmingly high rate of delayed marriages. Another study highlighted changes in married and unmarried cohabitation between 1975 and 1980 (Spanier, 1980). This study found a trend in the direction of postponement of marriage for a significantly high number of unmarried couples. It was suggested that unmarried couples are being drawn more carefully into the mainstream of society and that society is more willing to ignore marital status. Because there is not a heavy expectation for marriage, many cohabitors would rather strengthen their relationship before they make final arrangements like marriage. Trends in attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation suggest that norms and values concerning marriage and intimate relationships may have been restructured in important ways, with marriage becoming less relevant in structuring intimate relationships (Thornton, 1989).
Even though many cohabitors may have definite plans to marry, evidence suggests that high proportions of partners are more concerned about strengthening the stability of their relationship (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991). The picture emerging from this study was that cohabitation is very much a family status, but one in which levels of certainty about the relationship are lower than in marriage. Cohabitation is basically considered a testing ground for marriage, which is causing people to stay single longer.
While it is evident that cohabitation is sometimes used as an alternative to marriage and affects marriage stability, there are still positive qualities in a cohabiting relationship. Assessing compatibility for marriage remains the most important reason for cohabitation, and cohabitors tend to learn more about each other than would be possible under traditional courtship circumstances (Houts, Robins, & Huston, 1996). Houts, Robins, & Huston’s study provides evidence that compatibility affects the developmental course of premarital relationships, and should be examined in terms of how individual attributes affect the extent of harmony and strain in the day-to-day life of couples. When researchers examined people’s opinions, cohabitation was of little concern regarding happiness in marriage (Tucker & O’Grady, 1991). In fact studies believed that cohabitors have more frequent interaction with their partners and communication is more relevant than those who are married (Yelsma, 1986).
In order to achieve reliable data it is important that researchers adopt a "value free" methodology. When studying a controversial issue like cohabitation it is very difficult for researchers to eliminate preconceptions, that is why they must plan research in consultation with others from differing backgrounds. Most of the studies used information from prior experiments and statistics to compare characteristics of cohabitors. A popular survey, used by many researchers of cohabitation, was the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) (Bumpass, Castro, Sweet/Bumpass, Sweet, Cherlin/Thomson, Colella). The NSFH is a national sample survey of 13,017 respondents, conducted in 1987-1988. The NSFH was designed to provide detailed information on many aspects of family life in order to permit analyses of relationships among various family domains. In each selected household, a randomly selected adult was interviewed. A self-administered questionnaire was also filled out by the spouse (or cohabiting partner). Interviews averaged about one hour and forty minutes in length.
Another data source that has been examined for cohabitation research was the Current Population Survey(CPS) (Spanier). The Current Population Survey consists of a national probability sample of about 135,000 person’s 14 years of age and older living in approximately 63,000 households. The CPS focuses especially on household composition, thus allowing for relatively detailed analyses of the social and demographic characteristics of individuals in different types of living arrangements.
Two of the studies relied on marriage license records to determine trends in cohabitation (Gwartney-Gibbs/Houts, Robins, & Huston). These studies examined marriage application licenses in a designated area that provided information showing premarital. The subjects in these studies were generally younger adults in the working and middle class. Couples were coded as cohabiting if they supplied identical home addresses on their marriage license. The main issue addressed was whether premarital cohabiting couples postponed marriage longer than non-cohabiting couples.
The study by Arland Thornton (1989) had extensive comparisons of data. This study used data from The General Social Survey, Monitoring the Future, and Study of American Families. Since 1972 The General Social Survey has been conducted annually by the National Opinion Research Center. Information for this survey was collected through face-to-face personal interviews of English speaking person’s 18 years and older in the United States. Monitoring the Future is a survey conducted by University of Michigan through self-administered questionnaires given to high school seniors in the United States. Study of American Families is a panel study of mothers and children, with the samples being drawn from the 1961 birth records from the Detroit Metropolitan Area. The mothers were interviewed in person in 1962, with several interviews conducted by telephone between 1962 and 1985. The children born in 1961 were interviewed in 1980 and 1985 when they were 18 and 23 years of age. The information obtained from all of these surveys analyzed attitudes toward family values and beliefs.
The remaining studies of cohabitation used their own personal methods, which included personal interviews, questionnaires, and bogus experiments. Newcomb (1986) used the most extensive form of methodology by creating a longitudinal study. His study lasted for 9 years that involved interviews and questionnaires on a regular basis to report change and development of his subject’s views. Participants were originally contacted in 1976 while in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades at 11 Los Angeles County schools. The subjects were then contacted again at age 18 and 24.
When creating a study it is important to achieve a wide-range of subjects, but most researchers devoted their attention to cohabitation among younger adults rather than the majority of the population. The main reason researchers focused on the younger generation, is because cohabitation was not socially acceptable to the older generation.
The only studies that did not seem to focus on young adults were the ones that used data from the National Survey of Households, Current Population Survey, General Social Survey, and Study of American Families. The National Survey of Households, General Social Survey, and the Current Population Survey used over 10,000 randomly selected respondents that ranged in social background.
Throughout these studies it was clear that each researcher had their own theory to the effects of cohabitation. These theories not only helped the reader understand the roles of cohabitation, but it also allowed the researcher to develop new ideas and reform old thinking. These theories help us know why divorce rate is increasing, why marriage is decreasing, and why compatibility is so strong between cohabiting partners. The main theory that was evident throughout most of the studies was the fact that changes in family life in the United States has a strong effect on the role of cohabitation. In many of the studies researchers believed that cohabiting couples tended to be more liberal, which was the cause of less commitment to the marital institution. Researchers also believed that because of the convenience and benefits of cohabitation, many cohabiting couples did not feel it necessary to get married. This reluctance to get married is strongly effected by society’s acceptance to nontraditional family units. The last theory that guided some researchers was the issue of compatibility. Many researchers believe that cohabitation should have no effect on the institutional marriage, rather it is the compatibility factor that has the largest effect on relationships.
The main limitations these studies encountered were that they only pertained to the middle and upper class, relied on future expectations, interviewed only young adults, and they lost depth related to social desirability. Two of the studies (Black & Sprenkle/Tucker & O’Grady) only interviewed college students, which ignored the rest of the population. Another limitation was that some of the studies only used one area of the country (Houts, Robins, Huston/Newcomb/Gwartney-Gibbs). It is sometimes difficult to receive opinions from different geographic areas; this limitation can produce a lack of input from different ethnic and social backgrounds.
After reviewing these studies I was very impressed with the extensive research that has been completed to date. All of these studies used well over 50 subjects, which allowed for various opinions. The strong use of data sources like the NSFH, CPS, General Social Survey, Study of American Families, and Monitoring the Future also allowed for reliable comparisons and information. The use of questionnaires, which is said to be the best way of tapping perceptions, was also strength of most of these studies. Even if some of these studies had limitations and weaknesses, by cross-referencing, other studies would contain the information that was needed. Newcomb’s (1986) study definitely had the most extensive research. This study observed selected subjects for nine years, which allowed for Newcomb to see the true effects of cohabitation over an extended period of time.
The rise of cohabitation and decline of marriage has been feared by many researchers, and therefore many studies try to prove the negative aspects of these fundamental shifts in family values. The principal reason researchers focus on the negative aspects of cohabitation is because when most of these studies were undertaken this alternative lifestyle was not socially accepted. Even though cohabitation itself has existed for awhile, the escalation in its incidence is fairly recent. The beliefs that once formed the basis for relational stability were being reexamined, and it was difficult to define the required duties and obligations associated with family roles.
Now that cohabitation has been a popular alternative for the United States for a couple of decades, this behavior is becoming more accepted. The fact that many of these studies were completed 10-30 years ago makes me believe that an updated study should be performed. A more recent study will not only reveal updated views, but it will also be more accepted by the person performing the study to allow for more positive observations.
When research was done for cohabitation there was a great deal of emphasis on marital quality and stability, most of which found that couples who have lived together before marriage have lower marital quality and are more likely to divorce than those who have not cohabited. Unfortunately I noticed that not much research investigated the effects of the length of prior commitment to a relationship to the eventual stability of a marriage. Earlier in the century, advocates of lengthy engagements argued that the couples needed time to be both committed and to consider carefully what they were undertaking (Davidson & Moore, 1992). I believe that it is important to compare relationships that have existed for the same time period, so that the subjects are at similar relational stages. So when comparing cohabiting relationships to non-cohabiting relationships, I think it is necessary to know how long they have known each other. This is important because if subjects are at different relational stages, then they will obviously have different feelings towards each other.
I also believe that the studies should have compared cohabitation years to the number of years married for those who did not cohabit. Even though cohabitation is not a formal arrangement, cohabitors still engage in similar activities as married couples. Living together is a very difficult arrangement, and I believe that this is one of the most stressful steps in a relationship. If you can handle the day-to-day stresses of living together, then you can handle almost anything.
Premarital cohabitation has become a stage of courtship for an increasing proportion of U.S. marriages. Unfortunately previous studies claim that cohabiting relationships dissolve at a much higher rate than marriage, are less committed to the relationship, have a higher divorce rate, and rarely evolve into a marriage.
Explanations for these findings typically focus on the selection of individuals and couples into cohabitation. One explanation is that those who choose to cohabit rather than marry perceive themselves or the relationship as poorer risks in terms of long-term happiness and commitment (Thomson & Colella, 1992). A second explanation is that cohabitors are less committed to the institution of marriage, and therefore more likely than non-cohabitors to dissolve a problematic marriage (Thomson & Colella, 1992). The last explanation is that cohabitors define marriage in more individual than couple terms, so that cohabitors view marital quality as more central to the relationship’s stability than non-cohabitors (Thomson & Colella, 1992).
The problem with many of the studies on cohabitation is the fact that none of them were done recently. By performing a more recent study, I will be able to receive a more updated effect of cohabitation. Most of the studies have been able to determine the negative effects of cohabitation, but few realize the positive effects.
When an unmarried couple live together in an intimate sexual relationship they are able to get to know each other by gaining more information. This process is known as the uncertainty reduction theory, which allows unmarried couples to realize whether or not they want to make a formal commitment like marriage. By living together before marriage couples are able to gain the truth about the other person, and see if they can withstand each other’s faults.
I believe that cohabitation does help couples get to know each other and allows couples to see whether or not they are suited for marriage. Even though researchers debate whether or not cohabitation improves the chances of making a marriage partner, this study will directly test current data and subjects to examine whether or not cohabitation assists in the Uncertainty Reduction Theory.
SAMPLE AND MEASURE:
In order to achieve opinions from a wide-range of subjects, I decided that it was important for me to administer questionnaires at two different locations. This would avoid limitations and would allow for extensive results.
My first location will be at Santa Clara University, where I will ask at least four teachers if I can administer a questionnaire to their students. The students will be asked to participate in a study assessing the role cohabitation has on getting to know your partner better before marriage. I am aware that many college students have not been in a cohabiting relationship, so there will be a section on the survey pertaining to those that have never been married or cohabited. There will be at least 80 subjects asked to participate to include many examples and opinions in my study.
My second location will be at my doctor’s office. I thought this would be a good location because of the heavy traffic, and the time subjects will have to fill out the questionnaire. Unlike the subjects at Santa Clara University, the doctor’s office will have a range of age groups. Patients will be asked to participate in a study assessing the role of cohabitation has on getting to know your partner better before marriage. 60 subjects will be asked to participate to include many examples.
The questionnaire will include a number of demographic measures: occupation, level of education, location of upbringing, religion, sex, race, and age. The questionnaire will also include: relationship status, likelihood of cohabitation, benefits of cohabitation, negative aspects of cohabitation, how long you have known your mate, how long before you cohabited or married, communication style, and divorce rate.
This study will attempt to find out if differences exist between satisfaction and communication patterns between married and cohabiting couples. This study will also examine whether or not people believe that cohabiting will help eliminate uncertainties in a relationship.
The only problem with this study is that it will rely more on opinion, instead of hard evidence. Even though hard evidence is useful in studies, the focus on opinions will help realize how society accepts cohabitation.