Does Cohabitation Explain the Decline in the Divorce Rate?

September 19, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Is it possible that young people are taking marriage more seriously than they have in the past? Are they being more careful, marrying later and better? Is the dramatic increase in premarital cohabitation responsible in whole or in part for greater marital stability? Does the fact that first marriages occur later play a part?

It’s hard to tease out the causes, but it’s appearing increasingly likely that we may have seen the crest of the divorce wave that broke over the United States beginning in the 1970s and is now receding. This article offers some tentative suggestions about what’s going on (Insider, 9/12/16).

First, the fact is that the divorce rate has been declining for about three decades as this article shows (New York Times, 12/2/14).

It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce. It has not been for some time. Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce, according to data from Justin Wolfers, a University of Michigan economist.

Now, to be clear, there’s a real difference in divorce rates of relatively affluent Americans and the less well-to-do. As I said here, the key factor in the decision to divorce is whether Hubby has a job. If he doesn’t, even if his job loss is involuntary, his odds of being ditched by his wife skyrocket. Needless to say, affluent men are less likely to be out of work than their brothers further down the economic scale. So, when we divide up Americans by class, the divorce rates for the working class and the poor are about where overall rates were in the 70s and early 80s.

That of course makes little practical sense. After all, the less well-off a family is, the less it can afford to lose a wage-earner, even if he’s temporarily out of work. The incremental cost of one adult to a family is fairly negligible, so breaking up the family because of job loss isn’t the smartest move Mom can make. But she does anyway largely because of her tendency toward hypergamy and her identification of a marriageable male as a good resource provider. Once again we see the oldest of human motivations trumping sensible 21st century behavior.

Of course one reason for the lower divorce rate could be a lower marriage rate. Indeed, this article cites the U.S. Census Bureau for the proposition that marriage rates are at a 90-year low (Washington Examiner, 9/16/14).

According to Pew Research Center analysis, the marriage rate of Americans 18 and older hit a bottom of 50.3 percent in 2013, down from 50.5 percent in 2012. In 1920, the first year mentioned, 65 percent were married, and the marriage rate hit a high of 72.2 percent in 1960.

But to a great extent, all that’s measuring is the fact that young people are deferring marriage until later than was recently the case. Obviously, since the age of first marriage is now around 29 for men and 27 for women, there are a lot of 18 – 27 or 29 year-olds who aren’t married, but will be.

More persuasive is the fact that, within the last four decades, there’s been a huge uptick in pre-marital cohabitation.

According to data analyzed by sociologist Wendy Manning at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR), only "11% of women who first married between 1965 and 1974 cohabited prior to marriage." By 2005-2009, 66% of women were shacking up before marriage: a sixfold increase from their parents’ generation.

Now, in the past, it was believed that living together increased the likelihood of marital break-up, but now it seems those data were misconstrued.

Today, multiple studies on relationships and behavior point to cohabitation as the defacto "first union for young adults." In a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, Manning noted that living together "has become part of the pathway towards marriage."…

In a 2014 study, Kuperberg noted that "the previously found association between premarital cohabitation and divorce in earlier decades can in part be attributed to the age at which premarital cohabitors began coresiding." In short, couples who moved in together at a younger age were more likely to divorce later. That suggests at least part of the previously observed effect might have to do with the age of commitment, not simply the act of living together.

Historian Stephanie Coontz went a step further, in a response to Kuperberg’s findings. She pointed to an Australian study that found that while cohabitation was once associated with higher divorce rates, that’s not just neutralized since around 1988 but actually reversed completely: "For more recent marriages," those researchers concluded, "premarital cohabitation reduces the risk of separation."

Just what factors may be driving the most recent generation to take intimate relationships more seriously, to approach them more carefully and stay together longer are hard to isolate. Almost certainly it’s a combination of many things, including waiting longer to cohabit or marry. I’d hazard the guess that their experience of their parents’ divorces may have something to do with it too. Kids are traumatized by divorce and the loss of a parent, so it would make sense for them to take their own unions more seriously and try their best to stay together longer, particularly if they have kids.

But whatever the reason, or set of reasons, a decline in the divorce rate and longer marriages are a breath of fresh air for a culture that very much needs one.




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#marriagerate, #divorcerate, #cohabitation

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