August 29, 2005

Premarital Cohabitation Runs in Family, Says Prof.

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According to a recent study conducted at Ohio State University, daughters tend to imitate the marriage circumstances of their mother when it comes to living with someone before marriage. The study found that women whose mothers cohabitated are 57 percent more likely than other women to cohabitate before marriage.

“Cohabitation is an interesting question because it has accelerated in the past ten to fifteen years,” said Prof. David Lichter, policy analysis and management, director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell. Lichter conducted the study at Ohio State University with Prof. Zhenchao Qian, sociology, Ohio State and graduate student Leanna Mellott, also of Ohio State.

Lichter went on to say that 75 percent of people in the United States will cohabitate before they marry, whether it is with a significant other or with a friend.

Lichter explained that this study was different from others because most previous research focused on divorce, rather than on cohabitation. The results of the study show the “built in momentum for increased cohabitation in the future.”

Furthermore, Lichter indicated that this study is only the fist step in uncovering something very important. He said that it is now time to question what cohabitation means for children.

“Over 40 percent of all cohabitating couples have children,” Lichter said.

“We don’t know the consequences yet,” said Lichter in reference to the effects on children.

Lichter began the study because he was interested to see if children follow the lead of their parents. The study showed that girls do follow the pattern, but boys do not. Sons are not more likely to cohabitate if their mothers once lived with a man outside of marriage. So another question that Lichter now has is, “why the gender difference?”

“One out of seven children who live with a single parent reside with the mother,” Lichter said. Oftentimes, a single father is not cohabitating because single fathers are “much more likely to be living with another adult, such as a parent,” Lichter said.

According to Lichter, the next step is to look more deeply into the types of cohabitation. There is serial cohabitation, in which “young people today go from one cohabitating relationship to the next,” and then there is another group in which people cohabitate with one person for a long period of time and eventually get married to that same person.

Lichter also mentioned that the characteristics of those who cohabitate are significant.

Children of cohabitating parents share the same risk factors as their parents, such as economic status, education level and race, which might be why the pattern is passed down, Lichter said.

The researchers for this study looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which is a national survey of men and women aged 14 to 22 in 1979 who were interviewed annually from 1979 to 1994, and once every two years from 1996 on.

Mellott noted that most mothers in the study gave birth at younger ages than most mothers. Also, the study included more minorities than the general population.

However, the researchers still found the impact of cohabitation to be significant even after taking into account factors such as economic status, race and education level. The study also showed that black men are 35 percent less likely than white men to cohabitate and black women are ninety percent less likely than white women to cohabitate. Higher education levels correlate with lower levels of cohabitation, as does frequency of religious service attendance. Those who attend religious services frequently are linked to lower levels of cohabitation than those who attend rarely or not at all.

At the present rate of cohabitation, one-quarter to one-third of children today will live with cohabitating parents before they reach the age of 18.

Lichter, who just joined the Cornell faculty recently from Ohio State University, will conduct further research under his new role as director of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center.

According to the BLCC website, the Center’s aim is to “promote an understanding of existing and emerging challenges to the effective functioning of individuals and families across the life course, and to identify promising solutions.”

Archived article by Rachel Nayman
Sun Staff Writer