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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: Jay on Cohabitation

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jay on Cohabitation

Meg Jay’s article on cohabitation (“The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage”) is a great illustration of the use of the scientific process.  I believe that reading and understanding it is a good investment of time and effort, particularly for a young person considering cohabitation.  Jay begins with an observation.  Beginning in 1960, there has been a tremendous increase in cohabitation.  Currently, 7.5 million people live together without marriage and half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. 

An observation is followed by questioning and measurement.  A survey of young adults found that two thirds believed that cohabitating before marriage was a good way to reduce the probability of divorce.  This belief is contradicted by experience as measured by research.  Cohabitating prior to a commitment to marry increases the probability of divorce.

A hypothesis is formed to explain the higher divorce rate of cohabitors: the population of cohabitors was different than the population as a whole; they were less bound by social norms and therefore both more likely to cohabitate and divorce. As cohabitation became the norm and the result that divorce rates among cohabitors remained higher, other hypotheses were needed.  One was that cohabitation itself introduced risk to a marriage following cohabitation. 

Jay describes the new hypothesis.

Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation {This is called sliding into cohabitation]. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

I might add that I am more likely to like any research that picks up an idea used by economists. 

1 comment:

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