Shacking Up – The Failed Alternative to Wedlock

Back in the sixties and seventies, enlightened social commentators dismissed as Chicken-Little fear-mongers those who expressed concerns about the growing number of couples living in cohabiting unions outside of wedlock. Cohabitation, they assured the nation, would actually serve a beneficial social function as a kind of “trial marriage,” ensuring that those who went on to take vows actually were suited for each other. And even if these cohabiting couples never got around to taking vows, these progressive luminaries averred, their cohabiting unions would be functionally equivalent to marriages. So, no, they assured one and all, the multiplication of cohabiting couples did not mean that the sky was falling.

But in a new study of cohabitation recently completed at Bowling Green State University, sociologist Karen Benjamin Guzzo adduces evidence that can only intensify concerns about cohabitation. In recent decades, not only have fewer and fewer cohabiting couples gone on to marriage, but fewer and fewer have even stayed together. In terms of cohesion and conjugal solidarity, it appears that, yes, the social sky is falling.

Aware that “cohabitation has become quite common in the United States in recent decades,” Guzzo looks for evidence as to whether the practice of cohabiting has changed. She seeks such evidence in data collected between 2002 and 2010 for a nationally representative sample of 20,687 cohabiting unions. Guzzo’s analysis of these data establishes that “cohabitation is indeed changing over time”—and is changing in disturbing ways.  

While the data indicate that “the majority of today’s marriages are preceded by cohabitation,” they also reveal that “fewer cohabitations are transitioning to marriage” than in past decades. Consequently, “marriage rates are at an all-time low,” and—in our cohabitation-prone culture—“marriage rates are [still] declining.”

The progressive theory of cohabitation as a beneficial preparation for wedlock looks increasingly implausible in light of data establishing that among cohabiting couples “the chances of marriage . . . have declined over time, with the earliest unions—those formed in the 1980s—more likely to transition to marriage and those formed since 2000 less likely to transition to marriage.” Guzzo understandably interprets this statistical trend as evidence of “the de-linking of cohabitation and marriage.”

The progressive theory of cohabitation as the functional equivalent of marriage is also losing credibility. The data show that cohabiting unions are becoming more and more fragile. Guzzo reports that “since the late 1990s, the risk of dissolution [among cohabiting couples] has increased, with the most pronounced changes occurring for cohabitations formed most recently.” Guzzo, in fact, believes that “the elevated risk of dissolution” among cohabiting unions has played a “particularly big role” in transforming the character of cohabitation. If the couple cohabiting this month is quite likely to have parted next month, then it appears that couples who dispense with a priest or pastor in coming together enjoy the rather dubious advantage of dispensing with an attorney in separating quickly. Guzzo wonders if cohabiting couples are now less likely to marry, less likely even to stay together, than in past decades because of “a ‘lowering of the bar’ to cohabit as cohabitation becomes increasingly acceptable.”  

Americans who care about the social health of the country will recognize the malign effects of this lowering of the cultural bar—and will remember just who did the lowering and just what mendacious assurances they gave about the consequences.

(Karen Benjamin Guzzo, “Trends in Cohabitation Outcomes: Compositional Changes and Engagement Among Never-Married Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76.4 [2014]: 826-42.)