It is vexing professional conduct for a researcher to rigorously investigate the nuances of a social phenomenon and then disregard those well-established facts when offering a prescription. Yet it was exactly that inexplicable approach to the social sciences that was on full display on the New York Times editorial page last weekend. In an op-ed entitled “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” clinical psychologist Meg Jay simultaneously displays both a firm knowledge of the effects of cohabiting and an inability to proscribe it.
The title of the op-ed is itself revelatory of the fact that it is the downside of cohabitation that is newsworthy, since the popular presumption is that cohabitation is either neutral or desirable, but the research explodes these unreflective and unexamined presuppositions. That research demonstrates that cohabitation is almost unexceptionally harmful for successful, stable marriages and families, as Ms. Jay argues in her op-ed.
Yet the primary and glaring flaw of this article is its vacillation at the time of offering a prescription to this entrenched problem. This vacillation is both wanton and willful; the author, preferring defeatist resignation to bold, consistent remedy, demurs that “cohabitation is here to stay.” That a Slate.com columnist can flippantly generalize that “everyone lives together now before getting married” is understandable, but that a professional relational advisor can express such ideas is borderline insulting to those clients of hers that she has relegated to such irresponsibility. (Parenthetically, it must be noted that the Slate article is patently wrong when it argues that “the cohabitation effect” which holds that cohabiting couples are less satisfied with marriages has disappeared; research as recent as the 2000s suggests that it still holds true.) On the contrary, rates of cohabitation correlate with specific behavioral practices; for example, MARRI research shows that only 27.1% of women from intact marriages who worship weekly cohabit before marriage.
Refusal of commitment is the essence of cohabitation; it is therefore incomprehensible to suggest that cohabitation be somehow reinterpreted to be a “pre-marriage” arrangement. A far superior prescription that is consistent with the evidence is that clinicians and counselors advise their clients to forego cohabitation and make the real commitment of getting married.