Apparently, my news judgment leaves much to be desired. If ten years ago you had sent me an article called "The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage" -- in which the author wrote that marriages that begin with cohabitation are more likely to end in divorce -- I would have said, "Now there is some news." But that article is actually the most emailed one on the New York Times website today. How is it that New York Times editors and readers have missed this story before now?
Much of the research behind this finding came from a 2001 survey of the National Marriage Project. In subsequent years, a number of academics dispelled the notion that this finding was merely a problem of selection -- that is people who lived together before marriage also turned out to the same type of people who were likely to divorce. In fact, there were certain things about the decision to cohabitate and characteristics about the relationships that resulted from cohabitating that made marriage less stable.
Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, who wrote the piece based on this research and on her own experience helping the typically unhappy women who had come out of such relationships, makes the case quite clearly. She notes that people often decide to live together out of convenience -- it is less of a deliberate decision than getting married -- and that affects how picky people are about such relationships. She notes that once people are living together it is difficult to extract themselves from such relationships for a variety of practical reasons -- finding a new apartment, buying new furniture, determining custody of pets, etc.
There is a sad kind of onesidedness to many of these relationships. Women are much more likely to think of cohabitation as a step toward marriage than men are. And women are the ones who typically feel that they have sunk a significant chunk of (childbearing) years into a relationship and have difficulty cutting their losses and getting out. (Jay is also the author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now.”)
Anyone who has read up on this subject or who has a passing familiarity with couples in these types of relationships could not have found Jay's piece, as well done as it was, to be news. The comments following the piece suggest mostly that the piece has enraged people who have in mind a particular narrative about such things. The freedom to cohabitate without stigma was, in their view, a great step forward (particularly for women) and so evidence that suggests it has not made women particularly happy is not welcome.
May is not suggesting that cohabitation before marriage should be made illegal or even that a stigma should return for people who engage in it. She is just suggesting that men and women get smarter about their choices. And maybe this is the best narrative for conservatives who care about the institution of marriage and family stability. That is the one most likely to resonate with young women of any political stripe.
Earlier this week, we saw Democratic operative Hilary Rosen demean Ann Romney's decision to stay home with her children, saying she had never "worked a day in her life." In her response on FoxNews, Romney used the word "choice" over and over. It's obviously a word that has been co-opted by the left in the abortion debate, but there is something to be said for its use. Unlike the Boomer women who might feel some obligation to decide on a life or career course based on what's good for feminism or women in general, women in their 30s and 40s (in my anecdotal experience) seem to have no such loyalty. They don't want to be told what to do. Everything for them is a choice -- about what will make themselves, their families and their communities better. So if it turns out that some courses of action -- like getting married before living together -- will bring them greater happiness and satisfaction, the right should by all means be arguing along those lines.