The Incredible Shrinking Household

I was saddened by recent news stories confirming that the number of cohabitating couples continues to rise.

Many young people who have survived their parents' divorces are longing for life-long love, but have no idea how to make it work. Many of these young people see cohabitation as a way of avoiding a costly mistake that could lead to divorce.

Research shows that couples who cohabit before marriage are more likely to report unhappiness in their marriages, and more likely to divorce. This result surprises some people, including the researchers that have uncovered it. But it is not a surprise when you consider that the marriage relationship is much more than a glorified roommate or business relationship. People imagine they are taking their potential spouse for a “test drive.” The problem is that you cannot simulate commitment. Live-in lovers tend to have one foot out the door throughout the relationship.

Then, too, cohabiters only pretend to practice self-giving; in reality, they hold back from one another. Untrusting, uncommitted, they rehearse for a show that may never go on.

I am sorry to say that I know this from experience. My husband and I lived together before we married. It has taken us a long time to overcome some of the habits we developed during those early years. I would have been just as surprised as the researchers who found the cohabitation is a poor predictor of successful marriage. But since I have experienced cohabitation, marriage with reservations, as well as self-giving marriage with abandon, I think I have a pretty good handle on what the research data actually mean.

While this is essentially a cultural and spiritual problem, there is an economic aspect to the issue. The rising prosperity of the Western world, coupled with the increasing economic opportunities for women in particular, makes living alone more financially feasible than it used to be. This rising prosperity is one of the factors at work in a number of the census trends. People are living alone: Nearly a third of all households consist of individuals or unrelated individuals.

I would never say that this prosperity is a bad thing. Many of the Founding Fathers, for instance, were unsure whether a “commercial republic” could be stable, since wealthy people would tend to become complacent. I do think that we need to pay closer attention to the choices we are making surrounding our families, or we will all end up alone.

The correlation of child well-being and living with both biological parents is present in the raw data of most studies. The debate among scholars centers on the extent to which this can be accounted for by differences in resources typically found in single-parent households. The debate then turns to ways in which society can offer additional resources to support the children of single mothers. But most studies show that children of single parents still do worse even after accounting for differences in economic status. This suggests that the children are harmed from the loss of the relationship itself, not simply the loss of resources.

Untrusting, uncommitted, cohabiters rehearse for a show that may never go on.

It is almost as if policy makers and academics wish they could find any way possible to help children, short of stating the obvious fact that they would be better off if their parents were married. The goal seems to be to find the minimal set of human relationships that a child can have and still turn out tolerably well, or to find the least adults must do for their children. This minimalist posture is not confined to academic advocates and people who themselves are divorced. People from across the political spectrum seem to be saying, “What do I have to do in order to maintain my position that divorce or single parenthood is not harmful to children? How much money does society have to spend to make up for the loss of the relationship, so that I will not have to give up my belief that parents are entitled to any lifestyle choices they want?”

The crucial cultural issue behind the “home-alone” family is the American ethos of independence. We tend to glorify and glamorize independence. Independence is all well and good, but the truth is that there are times when we are legitimately dependent on others. The human person comes into the world as a helpless infant. Most modern political theory treats this as if it were a peripheral fact. Children require a social order around them for their very survival. The family provides that life-giving structure that allows the infant to thrive and ultimately to develop into the kind of person who can safely be turned loose in a free society.

Americans tend to be uncomfortable with the vulnerability that comes from acknowledging our dependence on others. We prefer the illusion of control. In my view, we would benefit from developing our ability to be interdependent with others in a constructive way. I believe that, for many people, fear of being dependent stands in the way of healthy cooperation. This is what destroys our self-giving nature, and, ultimately, undermines the welfare and happiness of our families.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of Love & Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire

Family Doesn't Work (Spence, 2001).