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If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation.Sure, more and more people are cohabiting, but it’s also less likely than ever to lead to marriage.Sure, there are many cohabiting couples for whom living together was understood as a step-up in commitment, but, on average, research shows it is not associated with an increase in dedication to one’s partner.[vii] If a couple tells you that they are married, you know a lot about their commitment. Likewise, if a couple tells you that they have clear, mutual plans to marry, you can infer there is a lot of commitment. (As a very complex but important aside, I do think the socioeconomic context of some couples makes marriage nearly impossible economically; for some of these couples, I believe cohabitation can be a marker of a higher level of commitment.) Practically speaking, what do Guzzo’s findings tell us?Even apart from marriage, I believe that a couple that says they have a lifetime commitment together is telling you something important about a strong level of intention and commitment. First, taken with the growing body of research in this area, I think we are seeing cohabitation headed toward becoming more ambiguous than ever regarding commitment.Before getting to her findings, let’s review some of the cohabitation trends she highlights in her report (based on prior studies): Guzzo notes, as have others, that cohabiting has become a normative experience in the romantic and sexual lives of young adults.As young adults put off marriage until later in life, cohabitation has inhabited much of the space that used to be made up of married couples.While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance. [iv] For example: Sheela Kennedy and Larry Bumpass, “Cohabitation and Trends in the Structure and Stability of Children’s Family Lives” (paper presented at Population Association of America Meeting, Washington, DC, 2011). I do think that older couples not marrying, often to protect assets and keep clear lines of inheritance, is a (small) factor in younger couples becoming less likely to marry.[v] For a detailed but non-technical summary, see here. [vii] For example, see study by Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman (2012). But I think the bigger issue is that people grew, over the past few decades, to associate marriage with divorce and negative outcomes of families coming apart. The problem is that marriage has been the strongest signal of commitment and it can help people clarify what they are/were doing together.
For example, it used to be the case that a couple who moved in together was very likely to get married—and, engaged or not, had an awareness of this when moving in together. Guzzo wondered if those who already planned marriage before moving in together are as likely as ever to marry while all the likely to marry.
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