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Does Cohabitation Help or Hurt a Person’s Future Marriage?

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Cohabitation has become prevalent as many consider it as a progress in romantic relationship and more significantly a “trial run” of marriage (Kline et al., 2004; Cohan & Kleinbaum, 2002). It is believed that cohabitation serves as a test of compatibility, especially under the increasing trend of divorce, so that partners could make careful decision before they are committed to marriage (Kline et al., 2004; Manning & Cohen, 2012). However, the perceived effect of cohabitation contradicts with much research finding (Kline et al., 2004; de Vaus & Weston, 2004;Manning & Cohen, 2012;Woods & Emery, 2002; Stanley& Markman,2006) that premarital cohabitation is negatively associated with low marital stability or satisfactory. Therefore, this study reviews some scientific research and literature so as to reconsider whether cohabitation help or hurt a person’s future marriage. Woods & Emery (2002) suggested that earlier and recent research consistently point out that the correlation is a result of selection effect, which means that people who choose to cohabitate before marriage are prone to some risk factor of divorce. In this study, as we focus on the effect of the cohabitation experience itself, it is important to sort out the selection effect to avoid confounding the conclusion. Integrating the findings, this paper proposes that the low marital satisfaction does not apply to all premarital cohabitation but it is at high risk when it is considered as test under uncertainty and without serious commitment. In other words, attitude and timing of cohabitation determine its effect.

To probe into the effect of cohabitation on future marriage, numbers on marital satisfaction and stability is insufficient. It is important to observe couples’ interaction and understand their intention of cohabitation. Kline et al., (2004); Cohan & Kleinbaum (2002) and Manning & Cohen (2012) claimed that research on premarital cohabitation only compare couples with and without cohabitation experience but neglect the possible different attitude among cohabiters. Therefore, their studies involve the comparison of three groups, specifying cohabiters with and without plan of marriage or engagement in the start of cohabitation. The results are consistent that couples that cohabitate without plan of marriage would have significantly lower marital satisfaction and stability than those who cohabit with plan of engagement or those who does not cohabitate. In light of the finding, when cohabitation is a test to the uncertainty of marriage or merely a progress of romantic relationship, it would hurt future marriage. Cohan & Kleinbaum (2002) claimed that marital communication and commitment are crucial links. Supporting with commitment theory, Stanley & Markman (2006) further put forward that the decision of cohabitation as test would make cohabitation more a constraint to marriage than the intended facilitator.

In the following section, we will discuss the role of commitment in premarital cohabitation and illustrate the constraint cohabitation posed.

Some may perceive that cohabitation and marriage as practically the same, in fact, their nature is different in terms of commitment (Kline et al., 2004). While marriage or engagement deliberates a formal commitment between the two, the status of cohabitation involves less commitment or non-deliberative one and more autonomy. Cohan & Kleinbaum (2002) found that those who cohabitate before marriage show less positive behavior and poorer marital communication. This is because couples in cohabitation without plan of marriage might not dedicated as much as in a marriage. As they lack high level of commitment in cohabitation, in view of dispute and conflict, they lack the marital problem solving skill and effort. Comparing cohabitation and marriage, cohabitation is of ambiguous state of commitment (Lindsay’s 2000 as cited in Stanley & Markman, 2006). Hence, without plan of marriage, couples might not have mutual understanding of their roles and commitment in cohabitation. In long run, the practice in cohabitation commitment continues in marriage without significant improvement, low marital satisfaction and stability result.

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