The Instability of Common-Law Coupling March 15, 2007Posted by Ninja Clement in Sociology.
It might be thought that common-law unions tend to be more stable than legal marriages, since the very point for many couples is to “test the waters”, seeing if they are compatible with each other or not. Of course, not all cohabiting and common-law couples intend to legally marry, but those that would like to tie the knot eventually, with their current partner or somone else, can be considered the “try before you buy” kind. On this view, cohabitation and common-law living ought to make for more comprehensive and committed relationships down the road, once unsuitable candidates have been eliminated.
The trends, however, show that such optimism is quite misguided. Common-law unions end in dissolution at higher rates than married unions do. Whether or not the co-habiting couple eventually weds makes little difference. The 1995 Canadian General Social Survey found that, among women aged 30 to 39, almost two-thirds of those whose first relationship was a common-law arrangement had separated by 1995 (either separating from a common-law partner or separating from a married partner whom the woman first co-habited with), compared to one-third of women whose first relationship was a marriage. A similar pattern is evident among women in their 40s – those who co-habited first were more likely to separate than those who married first (60% versus 36%).
It can also been seen from this that relationship instability is higher among younger common-law couples than older ones. Confirming this is the Survey finding that 45% of common-law unions formed between 1990 and 1995 dissolved within five years, compared to only 23% of pre-1980 formed common-law unions dissolving within five years. At present, if a common-law union does not turn into a marriage, about half of them dissolve within five years.
If the focus is restricted to former common-law couples who later marry, marital breakup risk is nonetheless found to be 50% higher for this group than for those couples who did not co-habit before matrimony. Contrary to popular wisdom, cohabitation before marriage increases the risk of divorce later on. Recent research also shows that children whose parents separated or divorced early to mid-way in the family cycle are more likely to find common-law living agreeable when they themselves grow up, suggesting the future perepetuation of a social cycle in some segments.
Bibliography: “One Hundred Years of Families” and “Changing Face of of Conjugal Relationships”, Canadian Social Trends, Spring 2000, No. 56 (2000), “Would you live common-law?”, Canadian Social Trends, Fall 2003, No. 70 (2003) and “Dynamics of Formation and Dissolution of First Common-Law Unions in Canada”, 1999