What are the factors that put cohabitors who marry at risk?

Individuals who choose to cohabit have certain attitudes, issues and patterns that lead them to make the decision to cohabit. These same attitudes, issues and patterns often become the predisposing factors to put them at high risk for divorce when they do choose to move from cohabitation to marriage. The cohabitation experience itself creates risk factors, bad habits, that can sabotage the subsequent marriage. These attitudes and patterns can be identified and brought for examination, decision-making, skill-building, change. These couples need to identify and work with issues around commitment, fidelity, individualism, pressure, appropriate expectations.

Many studies explore why cohabitors are more at risk when they marry. The research suggests that there are two overlapping and reinforcing sources for risk:

  • Predisposing attitudes and characteristics they take into the marriage;
  • Experiences from the cohabitation itself that create problem patterns and behaviors.

Predisposing Attitudes and Characteristics:

  • Cohabitors as a group are less committed to the institution of marriage and more accepting of divorce. As problems and issues arise to challenge the marriage, they are more likely to seek divorce as the solution. (Lillard, Brien & Waite; Bracher, Santow, Morgan & Trussell; Thomson & Colella; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom)
  • "Sexual exclusivity" is less an indicator of commitment for cohabitors than for noncohabitors. In this regard, cohabitation is more like dating than marriage.
  • Cohabitors tend to hold individualism as a more important value than non-cohabitors do. While married persons generally value interdependence and the exchange of resources, cohabitors tend to value independence and economic equality. These values do not necessarily change just because a cohabiting couple decides to move into marriage. (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg & Waite; Waite & Joyner; Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin)
  • Cohabitors can allow themselves to marry because of pressure from family and others and because of pressure to provide a stable home for children. While it is generally better for the children in a cohabiting household or a child to be born to a cohabiting couple to be raised in a stable marriage, this is not by itself sufficient reason for the marriage. While family and friends are often right to encourage marriage for a cohabiting couple, a marriage made under such pressure is problematic unless the couple chooses it for more substantial reasons. (Barber & Axinn; Wu; Mahler; Manning & Smock; Teachman & Polanko)
  • Cohabitors are demonstrated to have inappropriately high expectations of marriage that can lead them to be disillusioned with the ordinary problems or challenges of marriage. Cohabitors generally report lower satisfaction with marriage after they marry than do noncohabitors. There is danger that they think they have "worked out everything" and that any further challenges are the fault of the institution of marriage. (Brown; Nock; Booth & Johnson)

Experiences from the Cohabitation Itself

  • The experience of cohabitation changes the attitudes about commitment and permanence and makes couples more open to divorce. (Axinn & Barber; Nock ; Schoen & Weinick ; Axinn & Thornton)
  • Cohabitors have more conflict over money after they marry than noncohabitors do. Often they have set patterns of autonomy or competition about making and handling money during the time of cohabitation and this carries over to the marriage. Many couples have one pattern of money handling in the cohabitation household and have not discussed clearly how one or the other individual expects this pattern to change after marriage. (Singh & Lindsay; Ressler, Rand, Walters & Meliss; Waite)
  • Domestic violence is a more common problem with cohabitors than with married persons and this pattern will carry over to a subsequent marriage relationship. Cohabiting partners can have a lesser felt need to protect the relationship while they are cohabiting because they do not see it as permanent. If this is the case, some will begin dysfunctional patterns of problem-solving. The existence of the partner's children in the relationship or stress over the permanency of the relationship are common causes of conflict and sometimes violence. (Jackson; McLaughlin, Leonard & Senchak; Stets & Straus)
  • Cohabitors who marry are less effective at conflict resolution than those who did not cohabit. Either a fear of upsetting an uncommitted relationship or the lack of need to protect a temporary relationship can be factors that lead cohabiting couples into poor patterns of conflict resolution which they then carry into marriage. (Booth & Johnson)
  • Using sex as a controlling factor can be a negative pattern which cohabiting couples can bring to their subsequent marriage. Reinforcement of negative family of origin patterns can also have occurred in the cohabiting relationship and be carried over to marriage. Both of these patterns are common issues that dating couples carry into marriage, but they can be exaggerated by the cohabitation experience.(Waite & Joyner; Waite; Thornton & Axinn)

More on this subject: Finding Life-Long Love in a Hook-Up World
Fr. Robert Barron, Sept. 2012: Comments on the Hook-up culture/What happened to Virtue (video clips).