National Post

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Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Mother was right: Premarital cohabitation delays wedding bells
Sociology study

Elena Cherney
National Post

If they're getting the milk for free, why would they buy the cow?

A new study by a University of Victoria sociologist proves what mothers have been telling their daughters for centuries: Pre-marital cohabitation slows the march down the aisle to the altar.

According to the study, published in the Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, about 55% of couples who live together eventually marry, but women who entered into common-law relationships were 26% older when they married than women who never lived with a man before marrying. Men in common-law relationships were 19% older than their male counterparts who went straight into marriage.

The mean age of marriage for women is 27.3; for men it is 29.3.

Cohabitation also increases the odds of divorce. Women who have lived with a man out of wedlock are 80% more likely to eventually divorce or separate than are women who have never entered into a live-in relationship, while men who have been in common-law unions are 150% more likely to suffer marital breakdowns, Professor Zheng Wu of the University of Victoria has found.

The rates of divorce and separation among veterans of common-law relationships remain elevated even if the relationship ends and both people marry others. The risk of divorce is highest when both husband and wife have previously lived in common-law unions.

"It's kind of counter-intuitive," said Prof. Wu of his findings, which are to be published in his upcoming book, tentatively titled Cohabitation: An Alternative Form of Family Living.

Divorce may be more common among couples who lived together before marrying because those couples had qualms about marriage to begin with, suggested Prof. Wu, who studied Canadian census data and national surveys.

Canadians in common-law relationships are more likely than married couples to be non-religious, to come from a working-class background, to be less educated, and to have had "an unhappy childhood." Women in common-law relationships are also more likely to come from a broken home. Quebecers are more likely than Canadians from other provinces to live common-law instead of getting married.

"The cohabitors are a certain kind of people," said Prof. Wu. "These people are generally liberal and unconventional. Whenever you have marital problems, you're more likely to end the marriage. They're not conventional, they won't say, 'Let's stay together for the children.' "

Another possible explanation for the higher rate of divorce is living together out of wedlock fosters a more casual attitude toward marriage, and actually decreases commitment, Prof. Wu said.

While couples who choose to live together without marrying tend to be more liberal and less conventional, when it comes to cleaning the bathroom, they revert to the traditional roles. Prof. Wu found that women do more than their share of housework in both married and cohabiting couples, and "there is no evidence that cohabiting families are more egalitarian."

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