August 8th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic bounce masks deep structural crisis

ENERGY: What can Australia do when the fuel runs out?

EDITORIAL: Overseas lesson in energy conservation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Turnbull's judgement under a cloud

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford to make

MARRIAGE: The personal and social costs of cohabitation

OPINION: Keeping marriage between a man and a woman

CHINA: Cracks appear in China's detested one-child policy

POLITICAL IDEAS: Distributist responses to the global economic crisis

WAR ON TERROR: What will we learn from the Jakarta bombings?

EUROPE: Obama told: don't abandon central and eastern Europe

OBITUARY: Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski dies at 81

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Protest at News Weekly article on East Timor

Tony Abbott on divorce (letter)

Time for a people's bank? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Genderless child-rearing experiment / Hostility towards masculinity / Dear baby-boomers ... / Shopkeepers honoured

BOOK REVIEW: POMPEII: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard

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The personal and social costs of cohabitation

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, August 8, 2009
Cohabitation before marriage or engagement is a significant risk factor for divorce, and predicts lower marriage quality, according to a new study published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Family Psychology.

The study serves as a stark wake-up call for young couples at a time when the incidence of pre-marital cohabitation continues to rise.

Researchers at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies collected data from across the United States, regarding individuals' cohabitation histories, levels of relationship satisfaction and dedication, and relationship confidence.

The results of the study replicate earlier research on the effects of cohabitation. Specifically, the study found that "... those who cohabited before engagement reported significantly lower quality marriages and greater potential for divorce than those who cohabited only after engagement or not at all until marriage".

In light of these findings, the authors conclude that "the accumulating evidence shows some added risks for cohabiting before a mutual commitment to marriage", even after factoring in variables such as religious belief and education. The authors also note that the findings "are consistent with the theory that some cohabiting couples may go on to marry partly because of constraints associated with living together".

The study is of particular relevance here in Australia, where the incidence of cohabitation continues to rise. The 2006 census revealed that 15 per cent of all "living together" couples in Australia were unmarried, up from 6 per cent in 1986. What's more, statistics from the ongoing Housing, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey show that at present, approximately three-quarters of Australian couples who marry will cohabit beforehand.

These figures suggest that vast numbers Australian couples can be expected to experience the effects predicted in the University of Denver study. These effects are likely to be more pronounced on younger generations, who cohabit at higher rates than their predecessors. In 2003, some 12 per cent of all Australians aged 18-24, and 20 per cent of those aged 25-34, were cohabiting but not married.

The new research appears at a time when marriage is in crisis in the Western world. As an institution, marriage continues to be reformulated by advocates of same-sex unions, and is increasingly viewed as an institution which merely celebrates relationships and confers legal and social benefits upon the parties. Entirely overlooked is the socially beneficial role of marriage as the cradle of stability in which children best flourish, and through which strong, stable families and communities are formed.

This is unsurprising given that most Western societies now place marriage and de-facto relationships on a par. The push for same-sex marriage merely reinforces misguided notions of marriage as a matter of personal choice, and nothing more.

Meanwhile, divorce and family breakdown continue to wreak havoc in the lives of millions. In the United Kingdom, Sir Paul Coleridge, a judge of the Family Division of the High Court, has recently called for a return to marriage as the gold standard of adult relationships, lamenting the grave harm caused by the contemporary predilection for transient relationships.

As Sir Paul notes, it is the children who suffer most, and like their British counterparts, countless young Australians have experienced first-hand the traumatic breakdown of their own parents' marriages in recent decades.

It is little wonder then that younger generations should be wary of the lifelong commitment that marriage entails; they know too well that things can go terribly wrong. And whereas, in times past, the relationship choices of young people were strongly influenced by social mores which encouraged marriage, and discouraged "shacking up", today's youth find themselves adrift in a sea of possibilities, with only the flimsy rudder of personal preference to guide them.

As a result, young people are increasingly convinced by the apparent wisdom of a "try-before-you-buy" approach to relationships. What's more, in a world where premarital sex is the norm, frequent "sleepovers" at a partner's abode render the young mind vulnerable to the seductive logic of convenience: we spend so many nights together anyway, so why not move in together? The perceived economies of cohabitation (shared rent, bills, groceries) suffice to clinch the deal.

But young people need to know the whole story. They need to know that in the experimental world of modern relationships, the results are in: cohabitation contributes to poor quality marriages, and increases the risk of divorce.

They need to know that any short-term benefits are far outweighed by the tragic long-term costs. They need to know that by choosing to cohabit without the commitment that marriage entails, they may be rupturing the very foundations of their own future family life.

Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Australian Family Association.


Paul Coleridge, "Family breakdown is now a national tragedy", The Telegraph (UK), June 17, 2009.

Paul Coleridge's original speech to the Family Holiday Association, (delivered at House of Commons, London), June 16, 2009.

Galena K. Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley and Howard J. Markman, "Working with cohabitation in relationship education and therapy", Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, Vol. 8, Issue 4, 2009, pages 95-112.

Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades, "Living with cohabitation: what it means for relationship education" Microsoft PowerPoint presentation (Center for Marital and Family Studies, University of Denver, Colorado, US), July 9, 2009.

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