The unexpected consequences of 'living together'

Five years of marriage left a bitter taste in Dianne's mouth. After infidelity on her husband's part led to an ugly, painful divorce several years ago, she says, "I was determined to be single for the rest of my life."

So when Dianne, who asked that her last name not be used, met another man, she dated him for two years - and then moved in with him for three years.

"In my mind, if I didn't marry him, if we didn't become one, he couldn't hurt me," she says. "If he betrayed me, I could walk away. No divorce. I thought living together was the perfect arrangement."

Dianne's decision would have been almost unheard of 30 years ago, when only a few hundred-thousand couples lived together outside of wedlock in the US.

But today, in the wake of the sexual revolution that eroded social stigmas about sex and marriage, she and her partner are one of the 4.5 million unmarried heterosexual couples who live together.

The shift in lifestyle has been virtually unprecedented, changing so rapidly and on such a scale that for nearly two decades, no accurate studies and statistics were available on cohabitation.

But in recent years, as research on unmarried couples who live together piles up, researchers are discovering some surprising things - including that cohabitation is more likely to end in disappointment than in fulfillment.

"It's sobering," says William Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who says he used to be "fairly positive" about cohabiting as a good way for people to find out whether they would be compatible marriage partners. "It's been sobering for me, and for a lot of others in this field."

Studies on cohabitation

Today, with more than half of marriages preceded by periods of cohabitation (up from about 10 percent three decades ago), studies reveal that:

*Couples who live together have more conflict and less satisfaction with their relationships than married couples do.

*Although some 60 percent of cohabiting couples go on to marry, their marriages are often less stable and are more likely to end in divorce.

*Many couples who live together choose to have children - 4 in 10 children born out of wedlock are born to cohabiting parents.

But, according to a review of research that Mr. Doherty conducted for the federal government, fathers who cohabit are less likely to be involved with their children once the relationship ends than are fathers who were married to the mothers of their children.

"I [now] wonder what it teaches people about commitment and about working through problems," says Doherty. "Fifteen years ago, I might have said, 'It's a good idea.' Five years ago, I would have said, 'Who cares?' But now, I'm hoping my own adult children do not cohabitate."

Experts say the rise in unmarried couples who live together may be a reflection of society itself. They point, for example, to a growing emphasis on the primacy of individual fulfillment in any relationship, and to an all-pervasive consumer culture that stresses immediate gratification over satisfaction reached through hard work and commitment.

"There's a whole lot of scholarly speculation about changing values," says Pamela Smock, a sociologist who recently completed an overview of cohabitation studies for the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. "Although I hate to make sweeping generalizations, we seem to be more and more comfortable over time with impermanence. If something doesn't contribute to our individual growth, then we leave it. Our threshold has somehow changed."

Ms. Smock and others also point out that for young couples today, marriage can be a terrifying prospect. Many young adults are the products of marriages that ended in divorce. And in a society that has undergone such dramatic changes in attitudes about marriage and divorce, there's often little encouragement for young people trying to understand lifelong commitments.

"This generation has so much anxiety about marriage," says Les Parrott, a professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University, and director of the school's Center for Relational Development. "Marriage changes you, and you change together, and you need skills to do that." Skills, he adds, that society is failing to impart.

"I think there is a myth about marriage that says this person should complete me. Of course they never do," Mr. Parrott says. "Marriage is not about finding the right person. It's about becoming the right person. And that's a hard lesson for a lot of us to learn."

Parrott insists there is a huge interest among young people in learning how to get things right. When he and his wife started teaching a pass-fail course called "Relationships 101" eight years ago, they expected 25 students to sign up. Instead, the course drew 250 - and continues to do so each year.

In fact, some experts argue that the social upheaval of the past few decades - and the rise in cohabitation figures - doesn't mean marriage is being abandoned. For one thing, cohabitors represent only about 7 percent of all couples in America today.

Changing views on marriage

But more important, experts say, marriage is being rethought and reshaped, while remaining a powerful cultural force.

"Most people still want that formal recognition, and not just by the state," says Sarah Willie, a sociologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania who also points to increasing pressure from homosexual couples who want the right to marry legally. "Culturally, it's quite meaningful to have one's family and friends and society at large recognize a lifelong partnership. And people need that help, and support, in keeping their relationships together."

As post-sexual-revolution attitudes towards marriage evolve - and as the disruption of that revolution begins to settle - some sociologists say new models of marriage are likely to emerge, ones that may have more in common with the late-19th century that with the Ozzie and Harriet ideal.

Sociologist Steven Nock, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says the rise in two-income households - which has alarmed many observers worried about family stability - may lead to relationships that are more akin to marriages that existed a century ago, when farming couples were equal partners in work and at home.

"It's a very traditional model that's emerging," he says. "It's one where there's an interdependency that holds people together in those inevitable hard times."

Sociologists aren't the only ones thinking hard about marriage. Individuals like Dianne are rethinking it, too.

After giving birth to a son seven months ago, she has decided she's ready to marry again and is making plans to wed her boyfriend in September.

"We want to now make our family whole," she says. "I know it's going to work. I really do think marriage is sacred. I think people should take it more seriously than they do."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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