Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article by Anna Cosio claiming that cohabitation is Bad For You, and chastising Nadine Lustre for implying that living-in is no big deal.
Lustre, in what appears to be a rushed ambush interview in a hallway, had this to say about her rumored live-in situation with James Reid: “If that was true, so what?”
She said a bit more, but that, to me, sums it up.
So what if financially independent consenting adults choose to live together? As long as they are not harming anyone, or being abusive to each other, then nobody has any right to intervene, or to even demand any answers from them regarding their personal lives.
Leaving Lustre and Reid to their own privacy, let us now move on to discussing the science of cohabitation, which Cosio appears to make much of in her response. She cites a total of ten studies to back up her claims that cohabitation is Bad For You. Out of these, only one study from 2009 is within the past decade, while all the rest are more than ten years old.
The 2009 study which Cosio cited as proof to “clearly show that cohabitation is not the way to go for a successful marriage”, does not actually back up her claims.
The study acknowledges that the link between cohabitation and divorce is not conclusive, and needs to be updated with more recent data:
… many studies published on cohabitation have been based on a single data set, the National Survey of Families and Households. Although it comprises a random sample of the United States population, it is now somewhat outdated, for the first wave occurred in the late 1980s.
… good estimates of the strength of the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce are not available. For example, studies have shown that those who cohabited premaritally experienced a divorce rate that was somewhere between 1.29 and 1.86 times greater than the rate for those who did not cohabit premaritally … these estimates are based on couples who married as early as the 1960s and none of these studies included participants who married later than the 1990s. Updated samples will be necessary before steadfast conclusions can be drawn about the degree of risk for divorce.
And here’s what the study actually said when discussing the question of whether or not cohabitation should be discouraged:
… some might say that the question about dissuading couples is really more about religion than practice based on social science. Others would say that, even when it comes to social science, blanket proscriptive advice is not indicated or, at best, is premature. Not even the three authors of this paper completely agree on what would be the best practice under differing circumstances.
So, has anything changed since the 2009 study? Or, as Cosio asks:
But is cohabitation or “living-in” suddenly a good idea just because “it’s 2017”?
Actually, yes, if one bothers to look at more recent studies, it turns out our scientific understanding of cohabitation has been significantly updated.
Previous studies did indeed establish a link — known as “the cohabitation effect” — between premarital cohabitation and higher rates of divorce. However, the link does not prove that it is the act of cohabitation itself — and not other factors — which increases the risk of divorce.
If you’re trying to figure out whether or not cohabitation itself causes subsequent divorce, you must rule out other factors.
A 2014 study shows that previous studies failed to rule out an important factor — the age of the couple when deciding to commit. The age of this commitment — whether it is cohabitation or marriage — is the statistically significant factor in divorce risk, not cohabitation itself. A person who makes the commitment decision at age 23 (Nadine Lustre’s age) has half the divorce risk of someone who makes that decision at age 18.
In an interview, the researcher behind the study explains:
Previous studies compared the divorced rates of couples who cohabited with those who didn’t by using the age of marriage. Kuperberg did something new: She compared the relationships using the date of first moving in together. That date, she reasoned, is when a couple really takes on the roles of marriage, regardless of whether they have a legal certificate.
Using this method, she found no link between whether people had cohabited before marriage and their rate of divorce. The turning point in age for picking a life partner seems to be about 23, Kuperberg said.
“That’s when people are able to pick a partner who is more compatible,” she said. “Maybe they are a little more mature. They’re a little set up in the world.”
Previous studies did not account for age at cohabitation. Those that accounted for age at all used age at marriage, or age at the time of data collection. When the 2014 study accounted for age at cohabitation, the statistical link between cohabitation and divorce risk diminished or disappeared.
Standardizing by age at marriage in statistical comparisons of marriage dissolution among premarital cohabitors and direct marriers resulted in an artificially inflated “gap” in divorce rates relative to both models that standardized age using age at coresidence and models that did not take into account age at all. Hazard ratios for the effect of cohabitation on marriage dissolution when controlling for coresidence were 54% to 76% smaller than those found when controlling for age at marriage. The association between cohabitation and marriage dissolution was nonsignificant in models that controlled for age at coresidence and demographic characteristics, even in the cohort who married prior to 2000, for whom all prior research has found a significant positive association of cohabitation and divorce. These findings indicate that previous research on cohabitation and divorce that typically standardized age using age at marriage may have overstated the association between cohabitation and divorce if controlling for age at coresidence is the correct model specification.
By the way, a 2017 study shows that the health benefits associated with marriage and cohabitation are the same (and any differences are mostly explained by childhood backgrounds, not by the act of cohabitation):
Results show no differences in self-rated health between cohabiting and married people in Norway, Germany, and for Australian women. In the U.K, and U.S., and for Australian men, however, marriage is significantly associated with better health. Much of this association disappears when accounting for childhood disadvantage and union duration in the U.S., Australia, and for British women, but differences persist for British men. Our study indicates that early life conditions can be an important source of selection for explaining marriage benefits, and that policy makers should focus on reducing disadvantage in childhood rather than legislating incentives to marry in adulthood.
All of the above is from research abroad, though. Unfortunately, I have not found cohabitation research specific to the Philippine context, but if anyone knows of any, please do share your links in the comments.
In the meantime, I’m inclined to believe that it is not cohabitation which inherently affects a relationship’s outcome. I agree with the following recommendations from the cited studies:
The 2009 study calls for strengthening communication and understanding so that couples can “make better, more informed choices in their relationships”.
The 2014 study advises avoiding making major commitment decisions at a young age, and waiting until they are “more established in their lives, goals, and careers”.
It makes sense to me that the couple’s level of maturity, responsibility, sincerity, communication skills, healthy boundaries, and kindness and respect for each other would matter much more than whether or not they live together outside of marriage. Or whether or not they have sex or children outside of marriage. Or whether or not they’re heterosexual. Or whether or not they’re monogamous.
I do agree with Cosio’s statement that “cohabitation is not a recipe for happiness”, and I would add that neither is marriage. I’m not sure that it is possible to find anything that guarantees happiness. But I’m all for supporting people who find moments of happiness in their relationships, whatever form those relationships may take, provided that they do not abuse each other or hurt anyone else.