Marriage v. Premarital Cohabitation

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The values regarding marriage are changing at a rapid pace. While premarital cohabitation was an absolute taboo several years ago, many people are now accepting and entering into premarital cohabitation as a normal arrangement between couples. Many believe this to be a good preparation for couples, thus allowing them to test the waters of family life and thereby decrease the rates of divorce. However, there are a lot of empirical evidences that the result is the reverse. Premarital cohabitation in fact leads to higher likelihood of divorce and marital instability and dissolution. The objective of this essay is to compare those who had premarital relationship before marriage and those who have married directly on the outcome variable of divorce. To accomplish this, ten research articles will review some evidence and their contributions to the area of marriage and premarital cohabitation.

Hall and Zhao’s  research on “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada”:

Hall and Zhao’s research (1995) purports to study the “cohabitation effect” that makes cohabitors predisposed to divorce. Many previous studies have failed to find a link between premarital cohabitation in Canada with greater risk of divorce (Bentler & Newcomb, 1978 cited in Hall & Zhao, 1995), while later studies suggested a negative relation between premarital cohabitation and lower quality marriages or divorce. These findings are the ones that were tested in this research.

The data was from the 1990 General Social Survey (GSS) Cycle 5 of the Statistics Canada. Analysis was done using the proportional hazards regression procedure (PHREG) in SAS. The sample includes individuals who had ever entered a first marriage. Four socio-demographic factors were chosen. They are presence of stepchildren, marital status of the respondent’s first spouse, separation of respondent’s parents, and the age difference between the respondent and his or her first spouse. The study shows that “cohabiting with one’s first spouse does not enhance first marital stability” and that cohabitation effect remains quite strong in Canada.” (Hall & Zhao, 1995)

Wu & Balakrishnan’s research on “the Dissolution of premarital cohabitation in Canada”:

Wu and Balakrishnan (1995) studied the two competing outcomes of cohabitation relationships, which are union separation and legalization of the union through marriage. The research was done using data from the Family and Friends Survey (FFS) based on a national probability sample of 13,495 Canadians age 15 and older who have cohabited with another person, whether such cohabitation ended in marriage or not, collected through telephone interviews. The sample excluded residents of the Yukon and Northwest Territories and full time institutionalized residents. The research used as dependent variable union dissolution, which is a trichotomous variable indicating whether a specific cohabitation ended in marriage, ended in separation, or was intact at the time of the interview. Several covariates were examined such as age at the initiation of cohabitation, presence and number of children, pre-union birth, partner’s marital status, age heterogamy, education, religion, year of start of cohabitation, and region.

Some of the findings of the study are as follows. First, several personal characteristics, including gender, age at start of cohabitation, fertility status, heterogamy of age and marital status, religion, year when cohabitation began, and region affect union dissolution through marriage or separation. Second, cohabitation relationships are of a transitory nature. Lastly, “although many cohabitors eventually marry their partners, about two-fifths of women and one-half of men chose to terminate their relationships by separation” (Wu and Balakrishnan, 1995).

Liefbroer & Dourleijn’s research on “Unmarried Cohabitation and Union Stability: Testing the Role of Diffusion Using Data From 16 European Countries”:

Many researches have studied and found that premarital cohabitation increases the risk of marital dissolution. Liefbroer & Dourleijn’s (2006) added a new dimension to that finding by determining the differences if such in different countries. They cited a previous study that compared union dissolution rates in nine European countries. (Kiernan 2002 cited in Liefbroer & Dourleijn’s 2006). Variations in relative union dissolution were found to exist. Liefbroer & Dourleijn’s study continued and expanded from this by increasing the number of European countries and variables and by considering the level of diffusion of nonmarital cohabitation within a population.

Data for the research was gathered from the Fertility and Family Surveys (FFS) for 23 countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) between the years 1988 and 1998. Between 1,700 and 5,000 women were interviewed in various countries across all parts of Europe. These women may be current cohabitors, former cohabitors, and married women who did not cohabit. Results show quite distinct patterns in the four regions of Europe. In Nordic countries, the union dissolution pattern can be characterized as high and rising, while it is medium and rising in Western Europe. Southern Europe shows a union dissolution pattern that is low and rising. Lastly, Central and Eastern Europe have a medium and fairly stable union dissolution pattern. There is quite high level of diversity of union dissolution among Central and Eastern European countries.

Witcher’s research on  “Not-So-Cozy Cohabitation”:

Witcher’s (2004) looked at the fact that cohabitation, instead of obtaining the desired result of preparing couples for marriage, instead promotes divorce and disaster in the family. It also examined other related issues to divorce. First, the opening of opportunity to unilateral no-fault divorce caused more people to seek more divorces, choose not to marry and cohabit. Second, changes in divorce law made marriage unattractive by making it “quicker and more profitable for an individual to choose divorce and much riskier to receive one.” (Witcher’s, 2004) Third, adults with divorced parents will tend to choose cohabitation over marriage. Fourth, divorce causes a decline in the socioeconomic status of one of the partners, usually the wife. Fifth, children from divorced families receive less support, develop less psychologically, achieve less academically, and are less happy and adjusted than children of intact families.

There is 30 times more probability for child abuse in a cohabiting household where one parent is nonbiological, thus increasing the risk of injury or death. Also, the probability for marriage decreases when a man and a woman cohabit. Moreover, when they decide to marry, the probability is higher that they will end in divorce, thus making security less than married partners. Lastly, cohabiting couples manage their own separate accounts and properties.

Phillips & Sweeney’s research on “Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Disruption among White, Black, and Mexican American Women”:

Philip and Sweeney (2005) looked at another aspect of family life and marriage—race. The present study tries to appreciate racial and ethnic differences as a variable in the experience of marital disruption. The two research questions asked were “whether and how risk factors for marital disruption vary across racial and ethnic groups,” with special interest in “group differences in the association between premarital cohabitation and marital stability”. Aside from these, other risk factors for disruption were also considered.

The data used to investigate racial and ethnic differences in risk factors for marital disruption, with a particular emphasis on premarital cohabitation, were culled from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth (N = 4,547) of ever-married women, including information on their first marriages. Personal interviews were conducted in the homes of women 15-44 years of age. Complete marital and cohabitation histories for the women sampled, details on their childhood living arrangements, work, education, and pregnancy histories were also made available.

The findings are that “the nature and strength of the estimated effects of several risk factors for disruption differ across groups.” (Philip and Sweeney, 2005) Variation between non-Hispanic White, non-Hispanic Black, and Mexican American women in their characteristics at the time of first marriage and differences in the nature of risk factors for disruption were identified and highlighted. Moreover, cohabitation tends to function as a substitute for or precursor to marriage among Blacks and Mexican Americans, while cohabitation is characterized as trial marriage among Whites.

Kamp Dush, Cohan & Amato’s research on “The relationship between cohabitation and marital quality and stability: Change across cohorts?”:

Kamp Dush, Cohan & Amato’s (2003) research introduced the two competing perspectives, namely the selection perspective and the experience of cohabitation perspective. “The selection perspective assumes that people who cohabit before marriage differ in certain ways from noncohabitors and that these differences increase the likelihood of poor marital quality and divorce.” On the other hand, “the experience of cohabitation perspective assumes that cohabitation itself increases the likelihood of marital dysfunction above and beyond the characteristics that spouses bring to their relationships…. [C]ohabitation changes people and their relationships in ways that undermine later marital quality and commitment.” (Kamp Dush, Cohan & Amato, 2003) These two perspectives provide different views as regards the manner by which association between premarital cohabitation and marital dysfunction may have changed over time.

This study is based on Booth, Amato, & Johnson’s (1998 cited in Kamp Dush, Cohan & Amato, 2003) study of Marital Instability Over the Life Course. Data was gathered through telephone interviewers of 2,034 married individuals 55 years of age and younger, using a random-digit-dialing procedure in 1980. 691 adult offspring, one from each family, of 19 years of age or older of the original respondents were interviewed in 1992 or 1997. Two marriage cohorts were examined for the research. They were those married between 1964 and 1980 and those married between 1981 and 1997. The results show significant main effects of cohort for race, education, and family income. Cohabitation has significant effects for parental divorce, marriage order, and welfare use. Respondents who did not cohabit before marriage have less probability to have divorced parents, less likely to be in first marriages, and more likely to have used public assistance in the recent past.

Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital cohabitation and marital communication

Cohan &  Kleinbaum’s research on “Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital cohabitation and marital communication”:

Cohan and Kleinbaum’s research (2002) aims to examine the relationship between premarital cohabitation experience and marital communication. The main goal is to understand the concept of cohabitation effect, which describes the greater marital instability that couples who cohabit before marriage have compared to couples that do not cohabit. More specifically, the research wishes to integrate “the study of spouses’ background characteristics with marital processes to understand marital deterioration” (Sanders, Halford, & Behrens, 1999 cited in Cohan and Kleinbaum’s research 2002). Marital communication behavior as a function of premarital cohabitation experience was observed and examined to provide an understanding of why cohabitation is related to increased risk of divorce. Two research questions were asked.

The sample is composed of married couples of less than 2 years. Marital problem solving behavior, including demanding and withdrawal behavior, was measured. Social support behavior was also examined. Marital communication was tested as a function of couples’ premarital cohabitation experiences.  The results show that “spouses who cohabited before marriage demonstrated more negative and less positive problem solving and support behaviors compared to spouses who did not cohabit. Sociodemographic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal functioning variables did not account for the association between cohabitation experience and marital communication.” (Cohan and Kleinbaum, 2002)

Bennet, Blanc, and Bloom’s research on “Commitment and the Modern Union”:

Bennet, Blanc and Bloom (1988) again focused on cohabitation and other steps in family formation, including marriage, divorce and births outside marriage, specifically marital stability. It aims to examine the direction and magnitude of the relationship between premarital cohabitation and the risk of marital dissolution. The study is based on individual level data, thus allowing control of some individual-specific variables. It used a 1981 Swedish survey entitled “Women in Sweden, which is conducted by the Swedish National Central Bureau of Statistics (now Statistics Sweden). The sample is composed of 4,966 women between 20 to 44 years old, living in the country, and who have cohabited at least once in their lives with a man.

The results are consistent with previous researches. A striking overall association between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability was shown to exist. The rate of divorce of those who cohabited before marriage is almost 80% higher compared to those who did not. Cohabitation of  more than once before marriage also has a positive, but not significant effects. As for childbirth, women who marry at a relatively young age or have premarital birth have higher rates of marital dissolution than those who defer marriage or restrict childbearing to within marriages. However, the first birth within the marriage is shown to have stabilizing effects on the marriage.

Teachman and Polonko’s research on “Cohabitation and Marital Stability in the United States”:

Like previous research studies in Canada and Sweden showing a significant increase in the risk of marital dissolution caused by cohabitation before marriage; Teachman and Polonko (1990) examined similar variables, but focused their study in the United States. They also include the length of cohabitation in increasing the risk of marital instability as an additional variable. The data for the study were culled from the fifth follow-up to the national Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS), a stratified two-stage probability sample of 12th graders in U.S. schools during the academic year of 1971 and 1972. A sub-sample was selected from them of first marriages for every married respondents based on their relationship histories. Results by sex were compared as an advantage against most researches that focused only on women.

They find that there is similar probability for men and women to report that they have cohabited. However, like other research results, premarital cohabitation was found to have an effect of increasing the risk for marital instability thereafter. However, this is due to the length of time spent together in a union that makes the difference. Once the length of total stay together is accounted for, no difference between people who cohabited before marriage and people who did not cohabit before marriage will be shown to exist. Moreover, there is limitation that the results do not control other possible variables such as age, marriage and education. Marital structures of cohabitants are also more probable of being complicated because spouses are likely to have been previously married already, there is greater likelihood of having stepchildren at home and others.

DeMaris & MacDonald’s research on “Premarital cohabitation and marital instability: A test of the unconventionality hypothesis”:

DeMaris and MacDonald (1993) tested whether the instability of marriages when there is premarital cohabitation may be attributed to the possession of cohabitors of more unconventional family ideologies. The study is prompted by the increasing literature describing cohabitors’ marriages as more unstable than those of non-cohabitors. The relationship with unconventional family ideology is explained by the claim that people who are more unconventional in values and beliefs have greater tendency to be attracted to an arrangement involving premarital cohabitation.

DeMaris and MacDonald (1993) used data from the National Survey of Families and Households 1987-88 (NSFH). The research used both statistical control and subsample selection to control confounding variables and events. Two subsamples were selected. They are respondents 35 years and below who have neither married nor cohabited before, but have had sexual relations and couples among whom both partners were in a first marriage, the partners were currently living together, there had never been a separation due to marital discord, and the duration of the marriage at the time of the survey is 10 years or less. In the study, attractiveness of cohabitation, marital instability, unconventionality, and dimensions of unconventionality. The results are positive. The findings show that “cohabitation is more attractive to those never-married individuals who are more unconventional in their attitudes toward sexual behavior, and women who are more unconventional in their attitudes toward single-parenting and marital permanence. On the other hand, cohabitation appeals to men who are more conventional regarding parental obligations toward children and to women who tend to value a traditional family lifestyle.” (DeMaris and MacDonald, 1993)

Analysis and discussion section:

The results show a positive correlation between premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution, thus affirming earlier researches on that matter. Whether this is a sad fact or not depends on from which perspective it will be viewed. When it comes to family stability and values, this may seem to erode the traditional family values that people have, for a very long time, found sacred. Aside from being liberal in terms of premarital cohabitation, premarital sex and having children outside marriage, and the more alarming result is the effect on the regard towards the sanctity of marriage. Moreover, cohabitation, marital instability and marital dissolution may have many negative effects on children or offspring.

While the subject matter of these researches may be similar—the relationship between premarital cohabitation and marital instability and/or dissolution, the tests, studies made and results are not exactly the same. The researchers involved in the studies enumerated culled data from previous researches and added on it to improve the research and get more findings that are new and unique. More variables are included, while some are removed to expand the understanding of divorce and cohabitation and to contribute to the development of literature as regards the subject matter. Some of these new variables are worth mentioning in this essay.

Liefbroer &  Dourleijn (2006) added a new variable into the research, which is country where the subjects live or where the research is conducted. The research recognized that there may be differences in the effects and correlations among different countries despite the use of similar, if not the same, variables. This is an important contribution as it may take note of more observable, but abstract concepts that may affect attitude towards family formation, such as culture and environment. Related to this is Phillips and Sweeney’s study of race. Like geographical differences, race may have an effect on culture and other abstract values that can affect a person’s family values.

The concept of cohort was also introduced by Kamp Dush, Cohan and Amato (2003). Moreover, they divided their subjects into different years. This is a good move because, as observed, attitudes towards marriage and divorce change over time. Therefore, the exact sample with the exact same variables and data may have a different result in the future. However, such claim may also pose problems for research and investigation. If attitudes may change over time, thus giving a different result for exactly similar variables, there may be a problem on duplication of research. Therefore, the task will be to determine whether a different result was achieved due to a change in the attitudes or due to a flaw in the previous research. This is a challenge that is worth the attention of researchers.

A simple and obvious variable that is often cited by family counselors, preachers and ordinary people to have effects on marital instability is communication. However, marital communication does not often figure in researches about marital instability. In their study, Cohan and  Kleinbaum (2002) have effectively used marital communication, not only in relation to marital instability, but also to premarital cohabitation.

Childbirth was also considered as a variable by Bennet, Blanc, and Bloom (1988). This is remarkable because having children is often the last stamp to having a family. Being married alone makes people husband and wife. However, the word family is used when a baby is born to complete them—father, son and child. It is therefore worthy to note the effects of having offspring on family stability, and whether and how it offsets the effect of premarital cohabitation.

The last that will be discussed in this essay is the concept of conventionality. Both marital dissolution, including divorce, and cohabitation are non-traditional circumstances or events. They are both frowned upon by society in the past. Some people still frown on them at present. Some people have more accepting attitude towards them, but will still not do them as much as possible. There are some who accepts them fully and believes them to be options that may be exercised when needed. This similarity in category—their both being non-traditional, shows a high tendency for correlation to exist, which, as shown by DeMaris and MacDonald (1993) to exist in fact.

Many other variables were considered making it, in fact, difficult to imagine that one important variable has been neglected. Researchers in this field have been very thorough in their research. A concern that may perhaps arise is due to the number of variables used in research. Due to the complexity of the subject, researchers on this subject matter should always be wary of possible confounding.



Bennett, N. G., Klimas, A., & Bloom, D. E. (1988). Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link between Premarital Cohabitation. American Sociological Review. 53(1), 127.

Cohan, C.L., &Kleinbaum, S. (2002) Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital cohabitation and marital communication. Journal of Marriage and Family.  64(1), 180.

DeMaris, A., & MacDonald, W. (1993). Premarital cohabitation and marital instability: A test of the unconventionality Hypothesis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 55(2), 399.

Hall, D. R., & Zhao, J. Z. (1995). Cohabitation and divorce in Canada: Testing the selectivity hypothesis. Journal of Marriage and the Family. 57(2), 421.

Kamp Dush, C. M., Cohan, C. L., & Amato, P. R. (2003). The relationship between cohabitation and marital quality and stability: Change across cohorts? Journal of Marriage and Family.  65(3), 539.

Liefbroer, A. C., & Dourleijn, E. (2006). Unmarried Cohabitation And Union Stability: Testing The Role Of Diffusion Using Data From 16 European Countries. Demography.  43(2), 203-221.

Phillips, J. A., & Sweeney, M. M. (2005). Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Disruption Among White, Black, and Mexican American Women. Journal of Marriage and Family. 67(2), 296.

Teachman, J. D., & Polonko, K. A. (1990). Cohabitation and Marital Stability in the United States. Social Forces. 69(1), 207.

Witcher, P. H. (2004). Not-So-Cozy Cohabitation. The World & I.  19(3), 34.

Wu, Z., & Balakrishnan, T. R. (1995). Dissolution of premarital cohabitation in Canada. Demography. 32(4), 521.



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Marriage v. Premarital Cohabitation. (2017, Mar 31). Retrieved from

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