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Exploring the cohabitation effect : untangling the life course diversity of cohabiting unions Martin, Todd Forrest


The cohabitation effect has been identified as a factor in former cohabitors’ increased marital instability. Current research on this effect is mixed. Recent data indicates that the cohabitation effect has not only diminished in current cohorts but has now reversed. These findings indicate former cohabitors now have enhanced odds of marital stability. In order to examine the changing dynamics of cohabitation and its effect on later marital stability, this research utilizes cross tabulations, optimal matching analysis and logistic regression to study The British Household Panel Survey, a nationally representative panel data set. First unions that went straight to marriage were compared to first unions that were cohabiting unions but later transformed to marriages. Life course theory and diffusion theory are used to provide the framework for testing whether a cohabitation effects exists, how it may have changed over time, and how predictive variables are changing. The social and historical context of cohabitation is established by looking at the recent histories of marriage, divorce and cohabitation. Cohabitation typologies are presented as well as alternative explanations for the cohabitation effect such as institutionalism, sliding verse deciding, diffusion, sequencing and age and period and cohort effects. The data shows a clearly established cohort effect at the turn of the twentieth century. This effect remained stable until the post WWII period where it began to diminish, paralleling the rise in the adoption and social acceptance of pre-marital cohabitation. As cohabitation became more normative, the effect becomes less discernible. Logistic regression highlighted five main variables of importance across pathways and time: age at first union, diffusion, education, religious and traditional family values. The implication of how these variables changed is discussed in the context of a proposal to move from an emphasis on the cohabitation effect to an emphasis on the effect of each of these variables on union pathway selection and later marital stability.

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