Do marriage and cohabitation change people?

It’s the sort of dismissive comment I hear often.

Correlation does not imply causation. Yes, married families tend to do better. But it’s not marriage that makes the difference but the kind of people who marry.”

Let’s leave aside the flaws in the logic, that correlation does not rule out causation, that couples who do better don’t need to marry (yet most do).

Let’s overlook the research suggesting how background factors that might select a certain type of person into marriage rarely account for most, let alone all, of the differences between married and other family types.

Let’s simply focus on the causal mechanism. What might it be about marriage – and cohabitation – that could possibly make people behave differently?

Two key words cover the most plausible explanations. Decision and inertia.

Decision. When we make a decision about something, it helps us to feel a whole lot more confident and secure in what we are planning to do. “Right, we’ve made a decision. Let’s get on with it.” And off we go. The decision itself helps us buy into the choice we have just made.

Conversely, going along with something without really buying into it, ‘sliding’ rather than ‘deciding‘, can make us drag our heels and feel less attached or less committed to whatever we’re now doing. That makes it easier to pull the plug or give up.

It’s easy to think of simple personal examples.

  • We’re wondering what to eat tonight. After a discussion, we decide to get a pizza takeway. Having made the decision, we can enjoy the meal without wondering whether the curry we could have ordered would have been a better choice. In other words, we bought into the choice to get pizza. Had we been hesitant or reluctant, and gone along with it rather than actually making a decision, the pizza may not have seemed so appealing and we find ourselves thinking about how nice that curry would have been.
  • We need somewhere to live. Lots of places could do. We make a decision to rent one particular flat or apartment. Having made the decision, we can relax, enjoy the flat and not worry about the other flats we looked at before we made the decision. However, had we felt pressured into going for a flat in any way, we might then find we feel less attached to it and more likely to regret our choice.
  • We decide to go for an afternoon walk. So we put on coat and wellies and head off. When it starts raining, we keep going anyway because, hey, we decided to go for a walk. Had we put on coat and wellies without being quite so clear about our walking plan, let’s see how it goes, the first drops of rain might well be enough to make us turn around and head for home. The rain doesn’t change. But making a decision changes our attitude to it.

Decision making is a bit like crossing a threshold. Before we go through a doorway, we feel a bit hesitant, especially if other options exist. But once we’ve made a decision and take that step, we feel a lot better about it. However if we ‘slide’ through the doorway without ever really buying into it, we have a lower sense of attachment to whatever is on the other side. At the first sign of trouble, we could easily console ourselves that we’ve made a mistake and give up. But if we ‘decide’ that this doorway is the one for us, then we are more likely to stick with our decision, more likely to enjoy it, and more likely to cope with any minor inconveniences.

In other words, decision-making is an essential component of commitment. If decisions change the way we think about most things in everyday life, why should the decision to marry be any different?

Crucially, when we make the decision to marry, we do it in public. In doing so, we send an important signal to those around us of our intentions. It’s a signal that brings clarity and removes any lingering sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. If there was any doubt before the decision, there should be none now.

Inertia. Whenever some aspect of life becomes more complex, it takes more energy to change direction and make a different choice than if we were starting out. And so we tend to put up with things with which we’re not entirely happy rather than change for something better.

Here are some examples.

  • We’re driving to somebody’s house and we realise we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. Rather than turn around and go back to where we know we’re on the right road, it’s more tempting to keep going in the hope that the road will sort itself out.
  • Our family use two different types of mobile phone, Samsung and iphone. Even though it may be simpler and cheaper for all of us to use the same system, somebody is going to have to give up a system with which they are familiar and have spent time learning in order to start again on an unfamiliar system. This makes it a much bigger step to switch systems than it is to start afresh. So we stick with what we know, even if that’s not the ideal situation.

Every time we cross a relationship threshold, we increase inertia.

When we announce to the world, on facebook or otherwise, that we are a couple, inertia creeps in. Should we realise this relationship is not working out, the very fact that we have to tell our friends becomes an extra barrier to leaving. It’s not a big barrier, but it might make it that much more tempting to keep going just a little longer in hope. Telling our friends it’s over acts as a little piece of inertia nonetheless.

When we move in with one another, we add a great dollop of inertia. Life becomes a lot more complicated. Moving out because the relationship is not 100% what you’d hoped suddenly becomes a big deal. You have to summon up the courage to leave. You have to pack and physically move out. You have to find somewhere else to go. And you have to tell your friends. The temptation to keep going with an unsatisfactory relationship is very strong indeed.

When we have children, we add yet another big dollop of inertia, making it harder still to leave. And of course when we get married, unravelling the legal side acts as a little bit more inertia.

All of which suggests that cohabitation can easily trap more fragile couples who then stay together long enough to have a baby, or even get married, in the hope that things will improve.

Guess what? We’re trapped but not committed. We’re ‘sliding’ and not ‘deciding’. We’re taking on that extra set of constraints but without necessarily buying into the future of the relationship. That feeling of being trapped is bound to change the way we behave, isn’t it?

Here are some of the many examples of research evidence that lend weight to these eminently plausible ideas.

  • Unmarried couples who live together and/or have a baby together are no more or less likely to stay together than couples who don’t. What does predict whether couples stay together is anything that involves a decision about their future as a couple, such as having a pet, signing a joint mobile phone contract, or buying a house together. Babies and living together aren’t necessarily the result of ‘deciding’.
  • Couples tend to behave differently after they have moved in together. After moving in, couples are less likely to pursue marriage than they were before moving in. And couples negative behaviours towards one another increase after moving in together. This looks a lot like couples behaving differently because they feel more trapped.
  • Couples who move in before getting engaged, ie deciding, tend to be less committed in the early years of marriage. This applies especially to men. This particular study, which has been replicated with other samples, suggests the importance of doing things in the right order – ie making decisions before adding constraints and inertia.
  • The presence of a large number of people at a wedding is associated with happier marriages. This is not about cost of the wedding and not about the wealth of the couple getting married. What it does suggest is that having lots of people affirm the decision to marry helps reinforce a couple’s commitment to one another.
  • UK divorce rates have fallen 20% during the last two decades entirely due to fewer divorces in the early years of marriage and entirely due to fewer women applying for those divorces. In other words, men who marry are keeping their wives a lot happier. This fits with the idea that reduced social pressure to marry means that there are fewer ‘sliders’ and more ‘deciders’ among those men who do marry.
  • Half of UK family breakdown occurs in the early years of parenthood. Three quarters of this involves unmarried cohabiting parents. Evidence, if ever it was needed, that fragile unmarried relationships ‘slide’ on into parenthood, an increase in constraints that becomes a step too far for the relationship to handle.
  • And finally, our latest study shows that parents who are married before they have a baby are far more likely to stay together than those who marry later or don’t marry at all. That’s irrespective of age and education.

So do you still think marriage is simply a matter of correlation? Or is it at all possible that, for couples who marry, the decision itself might reinforce and clarify commitment and remove ambiguity while, for couples who cohabit, the sheer inertia of living together can suck fragile relationships that might be better ended onward into parenthood and more serious consequences when the relationship does eventually fail?

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2 thoughts on “Do marriage and cohabitation change people?

  1. Let’s apply the same principle to the workplace!
    Those who think there is no difference between marriage an cohabitation, will they put their money where their mouth is for their job? I very much doubt it!
    How about becoming a professional, but be employed on a zero hour contract? Freedom, you can see how it goes, if it doesn’t work out, you can walk away, no harm done, no notice to give, no Unpleasent bust ups, or court cases to fight for unfair dismissal. Liberty, freedom, progress.
    Ah, but the majority of employees like a contract, as do employers! Is this simply just a case of correlation? As a society are more people preferring to work on zero hour contracts? Is this the future?
    No Harry. As you pointed out, a work contract determines behaviour, expectations, commitment, security, accountability, for both parties.
    Relationships that are outside marriage, are like those who would chose to no employment contract. Zero hours!
    On the face of it, an employee may work 40 hrs a week, get the same pay or more, and do so for years. As many co habitees do. But they can go in an instant, and be disposed of in an instant, and no one cares. That’s business. However, the majority, and I dare say, many of those who think marriage is just a piece of paper, would never say that of their employment contract.

    Marriage without doubt affects behaviour. Because a marriage is about choices, exercising the will, promises and commitments made. Just as commitment is made in employment contracts.
    And it is the marriage by which all other relationships are benchmarked. Just as employment is benchmarked on the permanent contract.

    Unmarried couples expect faithfulness. But why should they? It is only because of a marriage promise to be faithful, that this concept is a social expectation. Where else does such an idea come from? Nature? No. There is no moral obligation to be faithful in an intimate relationship outside of marriage. It’s only a moral obligation in marriage BECAUSE A PROMISE HAS BEEN MADE BEFORE WITNESSES AND THE LAW FOR WHICH YOU ARE ACCOUNTABLE!
    The moral obligation is the breaking of a promise to forsake all others, and to be faithful to one another. This principle is taken from marriage, and presupposed in other relationships. It’s a false premise outside of marriage. Marriage makes the infidelity wrong. You can’t “cheat” when your not subject to any rules or obligations! How many unmarried couples are betrayed and feel “cheated”?
    Only marriage establishes such a concept in the first place. No marriage, no cheating. The unmarried cannot commit adultery.

    Correlation does not imply causation?

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