A study just out suggests that cohabitation may serve to “reposition” African-American young adults toward more positive attitudes about marriage. Ashley Barr, Ronald Simons, and Leslie Gordon Simons examined changes over time in marital attitudes in a sample of African American youth who were followed from fifth grade to when they were in their early to mid-twenties. While their methods did not allow for assessing actual transitions into marriage and marital outcomes, the authors were able to track relationships, relationship quality, transitions into cohabitation, and attitudes about marriage. Their working assumption was that cohabitation changes people regarding marriage in a number of ways, and that some of those changes might be positive. Indeed, they found that early cohabiting experiences generally led to more positive attitudes about marriage among these young African Americans.

This study is well-conceived and written, and has very strong methods. Of course, a lot of what’s important for understanding the conclusions lies in the details, so let’s dig deeper.

As Barr and colleagues note, various scholars have argued that cohabitation has become an alternative to marriage for many, perhaps especially so among African Americans. But what if, they wondered, it also changed attitudes about marriage in a positive direction for young African Americans? They worked from two theories about how cohabitation may impact marrying behavior. First, they drew on the work of Sandra McGinnis showing that cohabitation reduces both the perceived costs and benefits of marrying, but in a way that ultimately made marriage more likely. Second, they drew on the theory our team at the University of Denver has put forth: that cohabiting increases the costs of breaking up (compared to dating), making it more likely that some people marry a particular person out of “inertia,” even if relationship quality is not so great. Either theory suggests that cohabitation “repositions” people with regard to marriage. I believe this is true, yet very complicated.

Here are just a few of the complications in the types of questions Barr and colleagues tackle. First, cohabitation has become increasingly common, but it has also become less likely than ever before to lead to marriage.i Second, while there are ongoing debates about the impacts of premarital cohabitation, there is a lot of evidence that sliding into cohabiting without having clarified a mutual, long-term commitment to marry is associated with lower odds of success in marriage (read more here). Thus, Galena Rhoades and I have long argued that cohabitation is not a costless, inert relationship form. It can have many effects that people don’t anticipate when moving in together—such as getting stuck with someone they otherwise would have left, or having a child with someone who has no shared commitment to raising that child.

Third, Barr and colleagues focus on African Americans, who are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce than other groups.ii However, the race-related marriage gap may not be as large as one might suppose. Philip Cohen recently posted some preliminary analyses on his blog examining the lifetime odds of marrying for African American and white women. He concluded that “85.3% of White women, and 78.4% of Black women . . . are projected to marry before they die—a surprisingly small gap.” He was surprised, and so was I, but I believe the finding. Part of what is in play here is that African Americans tend to marry at even later ages than the already high and seemingly ever-increasing average age of marriage. So cohabitation may not have replaced marriage among African Americans as much as it has come to play an even larger role earlier in life, on average, compared to others.

Cohabitation “repositions” people with regard to marriage in complicated ways.

Returning to the new study, Barr and colleagues measured perceived benefits of marriage (Does marriage bring a happier or fuller life?), perceived costs of marriage (e.g., Is marriage associated with a loss of friends or freedom?), the importance of marriage (e.g., “How important is it to you to have a good marriage?”), and the personal salience of marriage (e.g., “Getting married is the most important part of my life”) among respondents. Importantly, the design they used is especially strong for assessing how individuals change over time. They were able to compare individuals’ attitudes about marriage before and after cohabiting (among those who cohabited during the study). Galena Rhoades and I used pretty similar methods in a study on the impact of cohabitation, comparing results from more typical cross-sectional analyses to results from the more sophisticated analysis of changes over time within individuals on reports of relationship quality.iii It’s that ability to look at how people change in comparison to themselves that makes such methods especially valuable for addressing questions about how an experience like cohabitation might change people.

Other Findings

As I mentioned at the outset, Barr and her colleagues found that cohabiting made young African Americans more positive about marriage. Other of their findings included:

  • Higher relationship quality (for those cohabiting or dating) was associated with more positive views of marriage.
  • Consistent with the findings and arguments of Brian Willoughby,iv individuals’ beliefs about marriage changed throughout adolescence and early adulthood based on their experiences.
  • Being in any romantic relationship was associated with an increased likelihood to believe that marriage is important. And while both cohabiting and dating experiences were associated with increases in marital salience and the perceived benefits of marriage, this was more true for the experience of cohabiting.
  • Most of these effects were stronger for young women than for young men. Cohabiting had a particularly strong impact on women’s perceptions of the importance of marriage.

It is important to note (as the authors do) the two greatest limitations of the study. First, they were unable to assess participants’ long-term outcomes in marriage. Second, they were unable to compare the pattern of associations they found with a comparable sample of non-African Americans.

Those limitations matter, of course, because while these authors found that cohabitation positively impacts attitudes about marriage, especially for young African American women, that does not necessarily mean that those who cohabited became more likely to marry or more likely to succeed at marriage than their never-cohabiting (or later-cohabiting) peers. Further, I wonder if the same findings might be obtained for others who are not African American. Why? Because intense relationship experiences may universally deepen the desire for long-term attachment, regardless of the quality of those relationships (which Barr and colleagues controlled for; wisely, I think).

Cohabitation may carry different impacts and implications in certain cultural or economic contexts.

We can’t really conclude from this study if cohabitation serves as a bridge to marriage among young African Americans or if it makes marriage a bridge too far. Having an increased aspiration for marriage does not necessarily mean an increased realization of marriage. That is an important quibble; however, the study is excellent and it adds to the overall discussion.

The findings of Barr, Simons, and Gordon Simons reinforce three truths that we should continue to grapple with in understanding marriage and family formation.

First, things may well not work the same way for all groups. While it likely distresses some who follow my work for me to say it, it is entirely reasonable to expect that there will emerge evidence that some conditions of cohabitation make marriage—and even success in marriage—more likely among some groups. While I do not believe that cohabitation, on average, tells us much about partners’ mutual commitment, it may carry different impacts and implications in certain cultural or economic contexts. In some groups, cohabitation may be a meaningful signal of commitment; I think it depends in large degree upon what other signals of commitment are available in a specific, societal context.

Second, while a lot of people in social science are not comfortable with such things, Barr and colleagues find evidence that romantic relationship development tends to work differently for women than men. Why might that matter? I remain of the belief that sliding transitions are associated with greater odds of relationships forming where there are substantial differences in the level of commitment between two partners. Historically, Galena Rhoades and I find that, when there is substantial asymmetrical commitment, women draw the short end of the stick about two-thirds of the time; that is, they are more apt to be the more committed partner stuck with someone who is less so. Whether male or female, you, dear reader, likely don’t want it to be you or your children living that life.

Third, Barr and colleagues show that higher relationship quality is associated with more positive attitudes about marriage for both daters and cohabiters. The usual suspects complicate causality here, but this nevertheless suggests that those who want to foster positive attitudes about marriage may do well to support work to help teens and young adults have higher-quality relationships. If you look around, it seems like there is plenty of work to do.

i. Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., & Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754–765; Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207–217.

ii. e.g., Amato, P. R. (2012). Research on divorce: Continuing trends and new developments. Journal of Marriage & Family, 72(3), 650–666.

iii. Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348–358.

iv. Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Marital attitude trajectories across adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 1305–1317.