Couples say ‘I don’t’ to divorce

U. MICHIGAN (US)—Young adults see living together as the best way to protect against divorce, not as an alternative to marriage, a new study finds.

“For a long time, cohabitation has been viewed as a challenge to the institution of marriage,” says Pamela Smock, a sociologist and research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “But young adults we interviewed are more likely to see living together as a good way to protect against divorce.”

Smock and Wendy Manning, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University, conducted the study using a wide sampling of more than 350 young adults in the Midwest from diverse social classes and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Most study participants were either living with someone at the time of the interview, or had been living with someone in the recent past. “Everyone had a divorce story,” Smock says. “Either their parents, their relatives, their friends, or all of these, had been divorced.” Roughly half did not grow up with both biological parents.

“Based on experience, young adults are well aware that marriage can be fragile and they want to do whatever they can to avoid a failed marriage,” Smock says. “For many, that means living with someone before they consider getting married.”

The young adults surveyed gave reasons for cohabiting that fit into three basic categories:

  • Socks and toothpaste: Living together is the best way to discover the “real” person and decide whether you are compatible over the long haul.
  • The test drive: Living together is a smart way to gain information to decide whether you want to get married.
  • A sure-fire antidote to divorce: Not getting married in the first place is the only way to guarantee you won’t wind up getting divorced.

Smock and Manning say that cohabitation weeds out marriages least likely to succeed, a concept first identified by University of Wisconsin-Madison social scientists Larry Bumpass and Jim Sweet.

“This idea lost currency for some time, with the debate about cohabitation centering on whether it was eroding the institution of marriage,” Smock says.

“But it’s an idea that we’re hearing loud and clear in the voices of the young adults we’ve interviewed, many of whom are convinced that living together is the best way to keep divorce at bay.”

The study appears in the newsletter of the National Council on Family Relations.

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