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Does Cohabitation Damage Marriages? Dueling Op-Eds Weigh the Odds


"A lot of these cohabitation relationships do breakup."

As Hannah Seligson writes in an op-ed for The Daily Beast, it's spring (obviously) and love is in the air in the animal (and plant for that matter) kingdom. Birds are nesting. Bunnies running rampant. Pollen that didn't make it to a floral stigma now covers your car.

On the human side of the animal world, Seligson explains new leases are starting to blossom among couples as they take what a significant percentage of young adults consider the "next step" in their relationship. It's a decision that Seligson writes 70 to 90 percent of young people will choose to make.

(Related: CDC: Nearly 1 in 4 babies born to unwed cohabiters)

Seligson is writing a response to what she calls a "viral" New York Times op-ed that made a case against cohabitation before marriage. The Sunday piece by young adult psychologist Meg Jay "The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage" holds this central thesis:

Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

Jay then goes on to detail what all can go wrong when two individuals couple themselves in a marriage-like environment without the legal commitment. With 7.5 million couples living together before marriage and many saying they wouldn't consider marriage until testing out their relationship in this manner, Jay writes that men and women see this next step differently.

Jay writes women see living together as a progression toward marriage itself, while men see it as a trial or a way to postpone commitment. Where things get sticky, Jay writes, is when couples decide they don't want to make it work and they've heavily invested their living situation with shared leases, furniture, pets, you name it.

(Related: Study: More children affected by cohabiting couples than divorce)

On the flip side is Seligson's "The Case for Cohabitation," in which she points out going through a breakup is more favorable than divorce. Seligson cites the viewpoint of some "cohabitation researchers":

“Some of the most recent studies are finding no effect on the likelihood of divorce, even along racial and class lines,” says Pam Smock, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, who has been researching cohabitation for two decades.

“Cohabitation may actually be keeping divorce rates steady by weeding out couples who would have been more likely to get divorced had they not lived together and realized they weren’t compatible. A lot of these cohabitation relationships do breakup,” Smock points out.

Seligson reports cohabitation researcher Sharon Sassler, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, saying it's the "serial cohabiters" that are skewing the statistics on the correlation between divorce rates and living together before marriage. Sassler, "If you’ve only lived with the person you are going to marry, you have no greater chance of getting divorced than a couple who hasn’t lived together."

So why the bad reputation for living together? Seligson thinks it has a long history of being stigmatized. She cites laws in the United States as an example of how this stigma is perpetuated. For example, having to check "single" or "married" on forms. Countries like New Zealand, she points out, have rather recently enacted a third category called "defacto" -- couples living together unmarried.

Even though Seligson does not believe the difficulties of cohabitation are different than the difficulties in marriage, she does acknowledge that perhaps more "enlightened conversation about cohabitation" and it's consequences should take place. These conversations would include, for example, discussing steps toward marriage; what happens when one gets pregnant; and what happens to assets if they split up.

Let us know what your thoughts about the pros and cons of cohabiting before marriage below.

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