The leveling of the divorce rate is covering up the instability in the rising rates of cohabitation that is being passed from generation to generation.
Cohabitation outside marriage sociologically changes the formation of the family unit. In a cohabitation arrangement, there is no legal commitment on the part of the spouses in regards to property and long-term child care arrangements. Because it leaves the children at risk, and due to religious and moral values, the act of cohabitation often carries a certain amount of social stigma with it. Yet, research has also shown that couples who cohabitate are significantly more likely to get divorced if the cohabitation progresses into marriage. A study by DeMaris and Rao (1992) concluded that "cohabitors have a higher hazard of dissolution at any given time since marriage. [and] cohabitors are estimated to have a hazard of dissolution that is about 46% higher than for noncohabitors" (p.183). The increased rate of divorce among previously cohabitating couples may be a product of an instability in the relationship from the beginning. According to Bumpass, Sweet, and Cherlin (1991), "About 40% of cohabiting unions in the United States break up without the couple getting married, and this tends to occur rather quickly. By about one and one-half years, half of cohabiting couples have either married or broken up" (p.917). Whether the cohabitation arrangement dissolves quickly, or ends in divorce after a later marriage, the prospects for a cohabitating couple are significantly worse than for a couple that marries without ever cohabitating.
The rates of divorce and cohabitation have been historically measured by the Census Bureau. According to Fitch, Goeken, and Ruggles (2005), "The acronym POSSLQ-"Persons (or Partners) of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters"-was coined by Census Bureau staff in the late 1970s. POSSLQ households-termed "Unmarried Couple Households" by the Census Bureau-are composed of two unrelated adults of the opposite sex (one of whom is the householder) who share a housing unit with or without the presence of children under 15 years old" (p.2). Divorce rates in the
United States rose sharply in the period of 1960-1980 followed Chart 1: Source (Schoen & Canudus-Romo)
by a leveling off period through the year 2000 (See Chart 1).
During this same period, the Percentage of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters rates have continued to rise sharply (See Chart 2). Chart 2: Source (Fitch, Goeken, & Ruggles)
An interesting aspect of the divorce and cohabitation rates is that as the cohabitation rate was low and remained steady from 1960-1970, the divorce rate rose sharply. However, during the period of 1975-2005, cohabitation rates have risen dramatically, while the divorce rate has remained steady. From a psychological standpoint, it would seem that a relationship that has transgressed from a cohabitation arrangement to a marriage would have a better chance of success. The partners would be familiar with each other's living habits and the commitment to marriage would be based on a well informed couple. As would be expected, cohabitation has a higher dissolution rate than marriage, but this also extends to the couples who have married and now experience a higher divorce rate. Several studies have confirmed that couples who have