Sunday, October 24, 2004

State of the union

My cousin scandalised her family when she decided to live with her boyfriend back in the early 70s. It was the Age of Aquarius; the tremors of the hippy 60s and its anti-establishment culture were shaking up Asia. I had just started secondary school and I can still remember my aunt going on and on about her daughter. She wept and ranted to anyone who cared to listen. I also remember thinking to myself, yeah, but what’s the big deal? So what if they want to live together before they get married? What’s in a piece of paper?

As they say, that’s all water under the bridge.

So, how do you explain the increase in cohabitation today? Is there a difference between living together and being officially married?

Most people say cohabitation should logically help make better marriages. Yet, it appears research across the First World prove otherwise.
“Many cohabitating couples break up before they marry. One researcher found this happened to 40 percent of the couples he studied. Although cohabitating couples are not married, the ending of the relationship is often as emotionally devastating as a divorce. Studies show cohabitating couples have greater marital conflict and poorer communication than couples who married before cohabitating. Couples who engaged in sex before marriage were more likely to commit adultery in their marriage than those who waited until marriage to engage in sex."
(Joe S. McIlhaney Jr., M.D.)
Professor of Sociology Dr David Popenoe who is a leading expert on marriage calls cohabitation “the enemy of marriage” and offers research to back up his claims. In a response to a Salon article, Popenoe refuted what he called the writer’s bias towards a particular ideology, by stating baldly, “No scholar that I know of, or anyone else for that matter, has been able to contest this with any counter evidence, (that premarital cohabitation results in negative social outcomes).” [More]

Why the negative effects? Popenoe’s executive summary of his landmark research titled, SHOULD WE LIVE TOGETHER? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage has this to say:
The reasons for cohabitation's negative effect are not fully understood. One may be that while marriages are held together largely by a strong ethic of commitment, cohabiting relationships by their very nature tend to undercut this ethic. Although cohabiting relationships are like marriages in many ways-shared dwelling, economic union (at least in part), sexual intimacy, often even children-they typically differ in the levels of commitment and autonomy involved. According to recent studies cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples in their dedication to the continuation of the relationship and reluctance to terminate it, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy. It is reasonable to speculate, based on these studies, that once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating is learned, it becomes hard to unlearn.

The results of several studies suggest that cohabitation may change partners' attitudes toward the institution of marriage, contributing to either making marriage less likely, or if marriage takes place, less successful. A 1997 longitudinal study conducted by demographers at Pennsylvania State University concluded, for example, "cohabitation increased young people's acceptance of divorce, but other independent living experiences did not." And "the more months of exposure to cohabitation that young people experienced, the less enthusiastic they were toward marriage and childbearing."
Another university researcher Professor in Sociology Linda Waite writes that cohabitation’s negative effects come about precisely because “it carries no formal constraints or responsibilities.” According to her, the Cohabitation Deal comes with a lot more cost than The Mariage Bargain.

In spite of the less than happy outcomes, unmarried couples are increasingly choosing to live together. Susan Sarandon once said in an interview that she’s shunned marriage because she’d rather a person remain in a relationship because he really wanted it - and not because of a marriage certificate.

That sounds terribly righteous, except that people aren’t one dimensional. As much as we want our hearts to be true, our feelings honest, boundaries are what we also need to keep our bond safe, like a lot of things in life. Sure, a piece of paper doesn’t guarantee a marriage stays intact. Ideally marriage authenticates a relationship and puts a seal to the couple’s commitment away from the dictates of shifting emotions. That piece of paper attests to the couple’s agreement in the eyes of the state, and their family and friends.

Of course there's another point of view to the debate and you can find an alternative response on this site . Whatever the causation or correlation, statistical and empirical, your answer to the question, "Who has ownership over my life?" ultimately determines the choices you make. For the Christian, the answer to that question is God. Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.” This is why both heart and reason must find another reference point. For me, that reference point is the authority of God’s word.

For database on family and society issues, The Heritage Foundation has a catalogue of interesting findings.


h said...

Thanks for this interesting post. Certainly I find myself presiding at the weddings of many who live together first, and I feel I have to make a reference to that in what I say; not to be critical, but to encourage them to move on.

Thanks again.

David BC Tan said...

Agree. It's not something you want to whack anyone's head with, especially at a wedding. But I would be interested to hear what you mean when you say you 'bring it up'without being critical, like, how do you do it?