It seems like every year a new study on the consequences of living together before marriage negates everything that had been said about it the year before. Cohabitation increases divorce - no, wait! It makes your marriage last longer - no! It only lasts longer if you were engaged before you cohabited ... It's a never-ending argument that keeps the presses happily rolling along.
On March 9, CBS' the Early Show joined the fray by inviting Hannah Silegson, author of "A Little Bit Married," to cite yet another "new study" that claims "if you only live with one person before you get married, you'll have a no higher chance of getting divorced."
CBS' Harry Smith introduced Silegson's book as a "cautionary tale," saying that "playing house" could be a "losing game," but the criticism of cohabitating ends there. Silegson and three other pro-cohabiting panelists discussed living together as "the new romantic right of passage."
"You want to try before you buy," Silegson told Smith.
"I think you actually need to move in with each other before you get engaged, before you get married because it's such a big commitment and you want the next 50, 60 years of your life to work out nicely together," said panelist Chris Edmund.
Edmund's soon-to-be cohabiting girlfriend called living together a "trial period before engagement" and a "bridge to marriage." Silegson agreed with her, citing a new study that says you'll be at no greater risk of divorce if you only live with one person before getting married. This contradicts past studies that found that cohabiting leads down a fateful path to divorce.
Silegson was probably referring to a study conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics that was released last week. It claims that cohabiting has little effect on marriage success - success being defined as "not getting divorced."
But is "not getting divorced" the best measuring stick to determine a successful marriage?
While divorce statistics give the media a nice round number to flash on their screens, separating happy marriages from the unhappy doesn't boil down so easily. Many studies, for example, have shown that, while cohabiting before marriage may not lead to divorce, it also doesn't end with a "happily ever after" either.
A 2005 article published in Psychology Today titled "The Perils of Playing House" found that those who cohabited before getting married had "poorer-quality marriages."
"Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment," wrote the author Nancy Wartik.
A compilation of studies gathered by Focus on the Family also report that cohabitation increases the risk of domestic violence for women and physical and sexual abuse for children. A 2005 article co-authored by Scott M. Stanley, author of "The Power of Commitment: A Guide to Active, Lifelong Love," found that couples who lived together before marriage were more likely to cheat, and a 2006 study conducted by the Alabama Policy Institute found that couples who cohabited before tying the knot were more likely to hit or throw things during arguments, considered their relationship more likely to end, and reported higher levels of depression than couples who did not live together before marriage.
How could something that sounds so sensible as a "trial run" be so damaging? There's been a few hypotheses but the most likely is the inertia theory. As Nancy Wartik explained in herPsychology Today article, going from living together to married can happen "almost by accident."
"We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage starts to seem inevitable," she wrote. " Because we have different standards for living partners than for life partners, we may end up married to someone we never would have originally considered for the long haul."
Neither Silegson nor any of the panelists during CBS' interview mentioned these possible consequences of cohabitation. Maybe living together doesn't increase the chances of divorce (a new study next year will probably refute everything anyway), but perhaps "not getting divorced" shouldn't determine a marriage's success either.