Friday, September 14, 2007

Commitment and Cohabitation

Women often complain that men are reluctant to make and keep commitments, particularly when it comes to marriage. Unfortunately, cohabitation does not help the situation. According to scholars at the University of Denver, cohabitation not only appears to make men less commitment-oriented even when it leads to marriage, but also makes women more like men when it comes to commitment.

The scholars analyzed results from a nationwide telephone survey in 1996 that yielded a sample of 908 men and women who were engaged, married, or cohabiting. The sample was further restricted to couples who had been married for five years or less and to nonengaged couples who had been cohabiting for five years or less.

As expected, they found that the married participants reported a significantly higher level of commitment or “dedication” to each other than cohabitants (p < .001). This variable yielded an “effect size” of 0.78, in statistical terms a “large” effect or what these researchers call a “moderately strong” effect. The researchers also found that married participants reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction (p < .01) and sexual satisfaction (p < .05), although the respective effect sizes of the two variables (0.40 and 0.34) are considered a “medium” effect.

As the researchers comment: “Both male and female cohabiters [sic] may typically be more ambivalent about wanting a future with their current partner. ... They may generally place the relationship ... at a lower level of priority and be less inclined to form an identity as a couple.” Furthermore, “cohabiters [sic] may have as much trouble, or even more, committing to one another as they may have committing to the state of matrimony.”

Comparing married couples only, the study found that a man’s dedication to his wife was significantly lower among couples that had cohabited prior to marriage compared to couples that had not cohabited prior to marriage (effect size, .68; p < .01). These same men also reported significantly lower levels of satisfaction in their marriages, as cohabitation history was associated with a moderately strong difference in level of satisfaction (effect size, .76; p < .01). These differences were not found among women.

Given that cohabitation appears to be becoming a new American norm (61 percent of those married in the five years prior to this study had cohabited prior to tying the knot), these findings may not be all that encouraging. Yet they confirm that marriage, far from being an outdated institution, works wonders for both men and women, especially when entered into the traditional way.

(Source: Scott M. Stanley, Sarah W. Whitton, and Howard J. Markman, “Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Nonmarital Cohabitation,” Journal of Family Issues 25 [2004]: 496-519).

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