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Marriage-Free, Not Fancy-Free

As a relationship scientist, I frequently consider research findings when making personal decisions in my life. The most recent personal decision I’ve made was to move in with The Consultant, a man I have been dating for some time now. Unfortunately, most of the research out there about cohabiting doesn’t quite map onto my particular situation. Although some research findings do seem to apply to us, such as cohabiters being more liberal, less religious, and more egalitarian compared to their married peers,1 other findings do not apply so clearly. 

For starters, the Consultant and I have both been married more than once, and we both have no desire to remarry. This is not to say we are not committed. Quite the contrary. The problem is that most of the published research about cohabiters treats cohabitation as just a “phase,” 2 or something you do prior to marriage or as a “test” of the relationship before taking things more seriously. Indeed, a survey of American cohabiters found that only 10% of participants cohabited as an alternative to marriage.3 So, although many people cohabit as a way to move on to another phase of their relationship, The Consultant and I are “marriage-free,” meaning we do not need to be married to be satisfied.2

Clearly people decide to cohabit for many reasons besides marriage (e.g., financial), and some even just “slide” into it, meaning that they gradually start living together out of convenience rather than because they are committed to each other. Despite there being many different types of cohabiters, researchers have not always differentiated these various types in their research samples, making the applicability of research findings to all cohabiters problematic. For example, researchers have found relationship quality declines when couples move in together and have no intentions to marry.4 In their study, the researchers differentiated between what I will call the “marriage intenders” and the “relationship testers.” But would the findings also apply to “marriage-free” couples? Researchers attribute the relationship quality decline to having to deal with relationship problems associated with dating relationships (e.g., commitment) as well as married life (e.g., paying bills) at the same time. So if The Consultant and I see each other as married for all intents and purposes, but have no intention of actually changing our marital status, do we resemble marriage intenders, relationship testers, neither, or both? 

Cohabitation research also tends to overlook midlife complications that impact relationship outcomes, such as bringing children into the relationship. I have two young boys and The Consultant has three girls—research on blended families tends to focus on those relationships in which the parents have remarried. In time, children moving into blended families tend to do well with the change in family structure. A large, multi-year study of 3,492 children demonstrated that blending families was not associated with negative behavioral outcomes for the kids—in fact, it buffered the negative impact of divorce events that occurred earlier. We have been happy that our children have started to describe each other as step-siblings and as a blended family, so the application of such findings on blending is probably more directly relevant to us than the cohabitation research.

Given this recent change in my life, I have decided to rename my column for Science of Relationships to Memoirs of Midlife Relationships. I will continue to explore all the fun challenges of relationships (old and new) during this phase of life and pose critical questions about how relationship research can (and cannot) be generalized to different types of relationships and people based on my personal experiences. Stay tuned!

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1Seltzer, J. (2000). Families formed outside of marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 12471268.

2Ortyl, T. A. (2013). Long-term heterosexual cohabiters and attitudes towards marriage.  The Sociological Quarterly, 54, 584-609.

3Casper, L. & Sayer, L. (2000). Cohabitation transitions: Different attitudes and purposes, different paths. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, March, Los Angeles, CA.

4Rhoades, 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. doi: 10.1037/a0028316

5Ryan, R. R., & Claessens, A. (2013). Associations between family structure changes and children’s behavior problems: The moderating effects of timing and marital birth. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1219-1231.

Dr.  Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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