Cohabitation as an inertia problem

Here’s another view on the cohabitation-parenting discussion.

This is from Scott Stanley, a psychology professor who has a blog called Sliding vs Deciding, and who told me he is a co-signer on “Why Marriage Matters” by W. Bradford Wilcox.

His view is that some couples end up living together because the barriers to entry are low, and then stay together out of inertia even though their commitment is low, and then have children in a less-committed relationship, with a higher-than-average risk of negative consequences. In a longer post, he writes:

There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. … This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.

This seems like a reasonable hypothesis of what happens in some cohabiting relationships. This perspective is more fully developed in an article Stanley wrote with Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman called, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Empirically, there is lots of evidence that many couples “slide” into cohabitation rather than making a deliberate decision to do so, going back to the qualitative research by Wendy Manning and Pam Smock.

Policy-wise, I’m still inclined to look for ways to reduce the negative consequences that might follow from these arrangements, rather than try to redirect trends in family formation patterns, which undermines potentially positive innovations, and hasn’t proven successful anyway.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago:

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? … In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

3 responses to “Cohabitation as an inertia problem

  1. But in a situation where you can’t cohabit because of societal pressure against it, don’t people also get married much more quickly, out of a desire to sleep together? So then marriages would also be less committed? It seems to me that a certain proportion of couples are probably always firmly committed, and a certain proportion are not very committed, regardless of whether we call that marriage or not.
    For most of the duration of the institution of marriage, any couple living together were legally married anyway. This distinction is a recent one, dating to the late Middle Ages, and apparently gradually fading away as well.


  2. Ness Blackbird

    What she said. I think the more marriage is enforced by institutional and social norms, the more people who don’t really love each other will get married. This probably DOES make them more committed — marriage will do that, like it or not — but I think it would just naturally reduce the observed advantages of marriage, by including more unhappy, dysfunctional families in the group.


  3. This comment came in via email, and I post it here with permission:

    I work on the ground (have for years) with disadvantaged populations (I came up from same background, went to college, grad school, etc.) — I identify with and love the folks I work with).

    I can tell you that hearing about selection effects & how it explains some of its negative correlations are no comfort to people affected. And, at some level to those of us on the ground, it almost sounds patronizing…as is you are just a product of your environment. Your problems are just due to selection effects, you can’t do anything about it. All we can do is ameliorate the fallout as best as we can.

    In the practical world it is a matter of great significance to people that there are choices and things they can do. Information, skills and support are power. The people I work with are pained by the troubles in their unstable love lives and how their children are impacted. They don’t like serial cohabitation–would like to get off the relationship-go-round. They are hungry for help in learning relationship skills, for guidance and frameworks to help them make decisions about relationships (including ending them safely and taking a break from them),& how to go about their next relationships more wisely. They are appreciative to learn of risks (like living with someone where there is not mutual understanding about what it means or where it is going). I have read Stanley and Rhoades research on inertia. It makes a tremendous amount of sense. The idea that there are risks, that inertia builds when cohabiting without any mutual understanding makes sense to the people I work with.

    I think we can hold two ideas at once in our heads — yes, selection effects are a significant part…..but the experience itself without securing a mutual agreement about the future/nature of it first tends to build up constraints that can keep you there. It is harder to break up.

    We have some vital info to give people, some good advice. People can be pro-active actors in their own lives. We don’t have to just settle with managing the damage. We can reach for higher ground.

    Marline Pearson
    Madison, Wisconsin


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