The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Shacking Up in the Shadow of Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

When progressives pushed through revolutionary no-fault divorce laws in the 1970s, they reassured the public that the permissive new laws would help move people out of bad marriages and into good marriages. Twenty-first-century social scientists are now discovering that the divorce revolution has actually prevented many fearful young people from marrying at all.

Clarifying the way that fear of divorce has driven down marriage rates and driven up cohabitation rates, researchers at Cornell University and the University of Central Oklahoma carefully interviewed 61 middle- and working-class couples—122 men and women in cohabiting relationships—trying to understand these individuals’ cohabiting decisions.

Nothing stands out in these interviews more than fear of divorce. The researchers report, “More than two thirds of the cohabitors interviewed indicated that the specter of divorce was a real concern, one that affected their views of marriage.” This concern took a number of forms. A good number of those interviewed voiced “concerns that the rewards of marriage were not worth the risk of what might occur (namely, divorce).”

Typical of those expressing such concerns, Travis, a 29-year-old accountant, commented, “Every time in the news I hear 50% of the people getting married are divorced, and I think that plays into a lot of people not wanting to get married right away and be a statistic.” His perspective was shared by many of those interviewed in this study; indeed, the researchers conclude that “the specter of divorce has permeated the sensibility not just of those who have personally experienced marital disruption, but of the larger population.”

Still, marriage has not disappeared from the minds of those interviewed in this study: the researchers remark that “the most common refrain” among those they interviewed was the expression of a “strong desire to ensure that when they wed, they ‘did it right’ and only married once.”

The choice to cohabit outside of wedlock might seem a dubious strategy for preparing for a single lasting marital union. But the researchers acknowledge that “early proponents of cohabitation thought that premarital coresidence would reduce the likelihood of divorce as the least stable relationships were winnowed out.” In fact, a number of studies have established that “couples who lived together before marriage were more likely to divorce than their peers who married directly,” though some recent research suggests that “the effect of cohabitation on divorce is either diminishing or, as cohabitation becomes more normative, it has become less selective of divorce-prone individuals.”

And cohabitation is clearly becoming normative for many of those interviewed, especially the working-class interviewees. Voicing a belief shared by a number of the cohabiting couples in this study, Shane, a 22-year-old retail sales clerk, asserted, “I don’t see much of a difference between the way me and her are now and how we would be when we’re married.” It is no wonder that the researchers believe their study “helps explain how cohabitation has contributed to the ‘deinstitutionalization’ of marriage.”

It is no surprise that many of those interviewed in this study had concluded “that the institution of marriage was in a precarious state.” When progressives go to work to improve wedlock, the results are entirely predictable.

(Amanda J. Miller, Sharon Sassler, and Dela Kusi-Appouh, “The Specter of Divorce: Views From Working- and Middle-Class Cohabitors,” Family Relations 60.5 [2011]: 602-616.)