Chicago Tribune

By Charles M. Madigan. Charles M. Madigan is a Tribune senior writer
Chicago Tribune
Sunday, January 31, 1999

Cohabitation. Living together. Getting to know one another. Preparing for marriage.

To many people, particularly young people who have grown up in the era of commonplace divorce, it sounds like an idea that makes a lot of sense. Why risk marriage without a test period? Why not just live together to see if the relationship will work out?

In fact, feelings about the idea of cohabitation--living together outside of marriage--have been measured. Sociologists have asked high school seniors to take a position on this statement: "It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along."

About 45 percent of young men and 30 percent of young women agreed with the statement between 1976 and 1980. Between 1991 and 1995, the numbers in agreement jumped to 60 percent of young men and 50 percent of young women.

Those attitudes are a reflection of the nation's growing experience at living together.

The U.S. Bureau of the Census reports that as of 1997, just over 4 million couples were cohabiting and an increasing number of cohabiting couples were raising children.

None of that comes as much of a surprise.

It is likely that changes in attitudes toward relationships will be one of the most significant transformations of the last half of the 20th Century.

People generally surfed into the 1950s on an assumption that young men and young women would get married, have some kids, get a house in the burbs and live happily ever after.

But the surf ride into the next century might as well be happening on a different planet.

The discussion these days centers on whether homosexual couples can be married in churches and what kind of special counseling one needs to succeed in that third or fourth marriage.

Given those developments, cohabitation seems a likely avenue to pursue in the search for a better way to cement a relationship.

But there is a growing body of evidence that despite the trend and despite the attitudes that are helping to drive it, cohabitation may not be such a good idea and certainly not as good an idea as the institution it is starting to replace, traditional marriage.

In fact, "living together" undoubtedly is undercutting the idea of marriage in American culture and causing a good deal of damage, particularly to women and children.

It appears cohabitation is a healthy option, in most cases, only when there is a marriage date on the horizon, and not on the distant horizon.

A study to be released Wednesday at Rutgers University takes the first deep look at the cohabitation trend and presents a series of strong warnings aimed at encouraging young people to rethink their attitudes.

Their most significant conclusion: In most cases, if you live together before you get married, your risk of breaking up later actually increases.

The study, "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage," also argues that cohabitation increases the risk of domestic violence toward women and physical and sexual abuse of children.

The practice hasn't created much of a track record at all in the areas of happiness and well being.

The report is likely to cause controversy because cohabitation has been widely accepted on so many levels that it has never received much of a critical review as a life choice.

Copyright Chicago Tribune Company. All right reserved.