In the fourth-year economics seminar I teach at Queen's University, we cover a range of topics, from globalized trade to the nature of rationality. But one topic seems to attract more interest from the students than others -- economics and marriage. Perhaps it is because the senior students are at an age when they are beginning to think about marriage and family questions themselves, or perhaps because it is a topic in which the real-world applications are easy to see.
For example, applying economic principles to divorce law, one would expect that the lower the exit costs from marriage (no-fault divorce, for example), the lower the "entrance requirement" would be (commitment to the marriage). Therefore, if the law makes it easier to get out, it also makes it correspondingly less important to consider the decision to get in. No great surprise there, as it is a basic economic axiom that if you lower the price of something (divorce) there will be an increase in the demand for it.
It is another set of figures, though, that spark the more intense discussion. For about 10 years now there have been many studies, both in Canada and the United States, which show a link between cohabitation before marriage with greater marital instability. That is, couples who live together before they marry are more likely to divorce than couples who do not. This year our seminar had the benefit of the latest Statistics Canada from the 2006 census, which reported again the same phenomenon.
Some students find this counter-intuitive. Their intuition is that if a couple were to live together first, they would learn more about each other, see each other with both strengths and weaknesses, and therefore be able to make a better decision about marriage. It is like a trial period for a new product, or a probationary period in a new job -- a chance for the parties to see if it is a good match, with a less costly way to break off the agreement if it is not.
So why do the data show the opposite? Perhaps there might be a "selection" issue, namely that cohabiting couples are less committed to
marriage initially than non-cohabiting couples. In that case, when cohabiting couples eventually get around to marrying, their lower level of commitment leads to a higher rate of divorce.
There could be another explanation though, which is that the decision to marry is not really like getting a new product or starting a new job, where functionality and compatibility are key factors. If marriage is something different, then the preparation too should be something different.
What helps marriages to endure is not the compatibility of the spouses or the delight they take in each other. After all, over time people do change, circumstances are different and the pressures of life are brought to bear. Not all age equally gracefully. What enables marriages to endure, and thrive, is the commitment of the spouses to the marriage itself. Most married couples will tell you, quite unsurprisingly, that they could never have imagined beforehand the circumstances that they have faced over the years of the marriage. Keeping one's promises and a willingness to sacrifice for the other are the foundations of marital and family stability.
The question then arises: Is cohabitation good preparation for keeping one's promises and learning to sacrifice? Perhaps not. What distinguishes cohabitation from marriage is precisely the absence of the formal promise or solemn commitment. And it is more difficult to make significant sacrifices for the other if there is less confidence in the permanence of the arrangement.
Cohabitation is bad preparation for lasting marriages because it confuses what marriage is about. It mistakes the fruits of marriage--delight in each other, a shared project in life, the joy of children -- with what constitutes the essence of marriage itself. The fruits, to mix the metaphor, are the result of the foundation -- which is built by duty, commitment, sacrifice, loyalty, perseverance and fidelity. What is needed is not so much a trial period of preparation, but training in those virtues. It turns out, both intuitively and according to the data, that cohabitation is not good preparation for that.