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New studies shatter myths about African-American cohabitation and marriage

cohabit 600WASHINGTON – Decades of research and the warnings of African-American mothers everywhere are being challenged by an emerging body of research that finds no link between cohabitation and chance of divorce. Further, researchers are asserting that cohabitation actually boosts the stability of resulting marriages for women who typically have lower marital rates – such as African-American women.

As one study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Families asserts, "...the positive association between cohabitation with commitment, and marital stability existed only among select subgroups of women who faced greater risks of dissolution (i.e., women who were black, had a premarital birth, had less than a college degree, were raised in single or stepparent families, or had more than the median number of sex partners)."

According to Census data, married couples lead 28.5 percent of African-American households. Many African-American couples choose to share their lives before they are willing or able to make it official. This is particularly true for low-income couples that find cohabitation economically convenient, or as a solution to unexpected economic problems.

Between 2006 and 2010, the National Center for Health Statistics surveyed more than 12,000 women on their cohabitation experiences. In the survey, African-American women had 51 percent chance of cohabiting by age 25. Between 1995 and 2010, the study reported a 39 percent increase in cohabitation as a first union for African-American women.

By three years of cohabiting, 31 percent of African-American women had transitioned to marriage, while another 41 percent continued living with their partner.

As recently as five years ago, researchers would have guessed that most of these marriages would eventually fail. But a series of white papers, released this month by the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF), finds that length of the relationship, age at cohabitation, and circumstances leading to cohabitation are better predictors of future marital misfire than cohabitation itself.

In fact, age can be such a strong predictor of marital success that it can override other relationship risks.

For example, one CCF researcher, Evelyn Lehrer, finds that women who delay marriage – past 23 years old, but ideally into the 30s and 40s – tend to enter unconventional, but stable marriages. In her work, unconventional marriages included couples with differing races (as well as different religions, education or economic levels, or previously-married men).

African Americans in general, but African-American women in particular, have low rates of intermarriage. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2010, only 17 percent of all African-American newlyweds had married out – 9 percent of African-American women wed a non-African-American spouse, compared to 24 percent of African-American men.

"These (unconventional, later-in-life) marriages have two advantages," Lehrer continues. "One is that each person has greater economic resources by that time...and also, they are more mature at later ages. We found a lot of solid unions in these marriages. They are making better choices (for partners)."

Cohabitation has the best effect on marriage stability for women who are engaged first, then cohabit; according to the Journal study, their risk of separation or divorce is even lower than that of women who don't cohabit.

Furthermore, the CCF's data asserts that the link between pre-marital cohabitation and divorce rates has been overblown, if it ever existed at all.

"Studies have consistently overstated the risk of premarital cohabitation, and continue to do so even for marriages formed since the mid-1990s. This is because they have been comparing couples by their age at marriage rather than by their age when they moved in together," says Arielle Kuperberg, another researcher on the CCF project.

"My study finds that when couples are compared by the age at which they move in together and start taking on the roles associated with marriage, there is no difference in divorce rates between couples that lived together before marriage and those that didn't."

Stephanie Coontz, historian and co-chair and director of Research and Public Education for the CCF, points to Australia for insight into this current cultural shift. Fifty years of research there also painted a picture of cohabitation as the harbinger of separation and divorce – up to the late 1980s, when the trend reversed so much that cohabitation actually bolstered marital stability.

"Divorce rates were much lower than they are today, partly because marriages in that era were based on predefined, rigid gender roles. Both parties knew exactly what was expected of them. It was much easier to figure out how to make a marriage work than it is today, when there is so much more to negotiate," Coontz says in the series' conclusion statement.

"Now that prior cohabitation is the normative route to marriage, and especially now that marriage requires more negotiation skills and deeper friendship than the past, the United States may well follow the same pattern that researchers found in Australia. Who knows what other old rules may be shattered in the next few years?"

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