This weekend, the New York Times ran a story called “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage” and conservatives instantly seized on it as more proof of the obvious perils of modern, licentious existence. The author, Meg Jay, was listed as a clinical psychologist and in the manner of all psychologist/writers began with an anecdote of miserable, former cohabiting patient X (“Jennifer”). The point of X’s story was to prove that cohabitation was the marital equivalent of the Hotel California, where young adults looking for a quick hit (less rent, more sex) languish for years, trapped in a “never ending audition to be his wife,” as Jennifer put it. Jay trotted out the usual clichés about women looking at living together as a step toward marriage while men see it as a way of putting off commitment. And then to elevate her argument beyond anecdotal evidence, she cited the famous “cohabitation effect,” a sociological finding that couples who live together are more likely to get divorced.
The problem with all of this is that the “cohabitation effect” is no longer true. The idea is based on old research from the 1980s. Recently Wendy Manning from the Director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University has analyzed couples married since 1996 and found that the cohabitation effect “has almost totally faded. We just can’t detect it anymore.” In the 1980s cohabitation was much less common, so it’s possible that people who did it were somewhat more experimental to begin with. But in the last 10 years, cohabitation has become the norm. Nearly 60 percent of women aged 25-39 have lived with a partner and the number among younger women is nearly 80 percent. So, knowing that the divorce rate is going down, and then doing the simple math, it can’t be true that all those couples are more likely to get divorced, can it?
Why do I care? I’m not especially invested in this debate. I did not live with my husband before we got married and I still don’t really see the appeal—seems like rushing into the less fun bits of a relationship before you have to. But I care because we are once again agonizing about a nonproblem while declining to look at what the real problem is. Cohabitation among people like “Jennifer,” that is, young urban women with enough money and time to see Dr. Jay, is not a problem. The vast majority of women don’t go through the Jennifer train wreck—75 percent live only with the man they marry, and the rest eventually get married to someone.
The train wreck are the 15-20 percent of what sociologists call “serial cohabitors.” These are women with less money who have children on their own and live with a series of men for two or three months at a time, none of which tend to be the fathers of their children. These are also women who tend never to get married. And unfortunately we live in a marriage obsessed society, so as far as the government is concerned, they are invisible.
Complaining about “the downsides of cohabitation” is a total waste of time. Everyone lives together now before getting married; I have been informed by all my younger friends how grandma it is of me to have done otherwise. What we really should be doing is not trying to wish it away, but embracing it and starting to think about cohabiting families as actual families, so if they should happen to be fragile or needing support in some way they could be just as qualified to receive it as anyone else.