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The Instability of Common-Law Coupling March 15, 2007

Posted 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



1. Sarah - March 16, 2007

What’s never convinced me about these figures is the correlation/causation problem. Isn’t it likely that those who choose to cohabit are also those who are not as opposed to divorce as those who do not cohabit? In my experience, those who do not cohabit tend to be religious believers, who also hold strong views against divorce.

That said, I’ve heard that divorce rates among Christians are just as high as divorce rates among non-Christians, which tends to weaken my explanation of the rate of cohabitating divorcers.

Any insights?

2. Ninja Clement - March 17, 2007

Sarah wrote:

“Isn’t it likely that those who choose to cohabit are also those who are not as opposed to divorce as those who do not cohabit?”

Yes, and this is exactly the point. Married couples who lived common-law (or at least lived together) prior to tying the knot are at higher risk for divorce or seperation than married couples who did not – a risk differential of 50% or more. ‘Being less opposed to divorce in the first place’ is not a third variable whose effects have to be controlled for. In part, it is because common-law couples do not view the institution of marriage traditionally that they are more prone to marital breakup after they wed.

Regarding your point about rates of divorce among Christians, I don’t know what the Canadian data says. I have seen American statistics that indicate that those rates are, sadly, not much lower than that among non-Christian cohorts. When I’m back in front of my home computer, I will see what references I can put up.

3. ML - July 2, 2007

Statistics aside, I think that in practical terms, people who are unwilling to make the initial commitment will always have the fallback option of separation hanging over the relationship. Building a marriage (common-law or proper) on the idea “we can always call it quits” rather than “we’re in this together” stunts the growth of the relationship. The background of commitment is necessary in order for each to truly give him/her self to the other, a state necessary in turn for the flourishing of love and of the marriage (as a third entity). Reservations on commitment, however, will inevitably breed insecurities, resentments, etc., further increasing the probability of a breakdown in the relationship.

I think that this factor would be more significant than the question of whether those couples who choose to cohabit are more accepting of divorce, given that, regardless of what couples might say of divorce when beginning a cohabiting relationship, their very actions belie an indecisiveness or unwillingness to commit themselves. ‘Actions speak louder than words’, and all that.

I say this thinking of couples I have known who professed a traditional view of marriage, but nonetheless cohabited for at least a year before marriage (citing the practicality of “testing the waters”), and subsequently divorced or separated, after marriage, expressing regret that “things just didn’t work out”.

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