The Influence of Relationship Match, Investments and Satisfaction on Divorce Risks in Cohabiters and Married People

Aart Liefbroer, Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI-KNAW)
Saskia te Riele, Statistics Netherlands

Nowadays, in most western countries cohabitation is a structural part of relationship formation. Some cohabiters get married eventually, others never tie the knot. An increasingly smaller group does not cohabit prior to marriage. Previous research has shown that cohabiters run higher risks of breaking up and that this is not because of selection effects. However, cohabiters are a heterogeneous group that includes couples that are testing the relationship before getting married, couples that ‘slid into cohabitation’ and committed couples that do not want to get married. Marriage may, therefore, not be the most important factor influencing divorce risk, but rather the quality of the match itself.

We tested this by following cohabiting and married people in the Dutch survey on Family Formation of 2008 for up to 7 years after the survey using registrative data. In a discrete time analysis, also controlling for relationship duration, age at the start of the relationship, birth cohort and selection (education, religion, divorce of parents), divorce risks of cohabiters, married people with and married people without prior cohabitation were compared. Also, the influence of (1) characteristics of the match (age difference and difference in educational level); (2) investments (children and co-owning a house); and (3) relationship satisfaction were tested.

Results show that unmarried cohabiters have higher dissolution risks than married people and that there is no difference between married people with and without prior cohabitation. Investments and relationship satisfaction were important predictors of divorce, both for cohabiters and married people. However, this did not explain the differences found. This implies that even committed and happy cohabiters have less stable relationships than married people. Moving on to marriage may be a sign of more commitment in itself, but cohabiters or cohabiting relationships may also have other characteristics increasing the risk of divorce.


The influence of relationship match,investments and satisfaction on divorce risks in cohabiters and married people

 

Nowadays, in most western countriescohabitation is a structural part of relationship formation. Some cohabitersget married after some time, others never tie the knot. An increasingly smallergroup does not cohabit prior to marriage. Previous research has shown that cohabitersrun a higher risk of breaking up and that this is not because of selection effects (e.g. Hogerbrugge& Dykstra, 2009). However, cohabiters are aheterogeneous group (Hiekel, Liefbroer en Poortman, 2014) thatincludes couples that are still testing the relationship but want to getmarried in the future, couples that did not make a conscious decision butinstead ‘slid into cohabitation’ or couples that do not want to get married butinvested in the relationship by, for instance, having children or buying ahouse together. Some cohabiters, for instance those with marriage plans, do notdiffer much from married people in terms of relationship satisfaction or plansto break up (Wiik, Keizer & Lappegard, 2012). Marriage  may, therefore, notbe the most important factor influencing divorce risk, but rather the qualityof the match itself in terms of investments, relationship satisfaction or theextent to which the relationship is homogeneous.

 

We investigated this for theNetherlands. Cohabitation is still growing in popularity and in younger couplesthe majority cohabited prior to marriage.  In this study, the ones that gotmarried are compared to unmarried cohabiters on one side and to couples thatdid not cohabit before getting married on the other side. According to previousresearch, this latter group has the lowest divorce risk, but only in countriesin which cohabitation is a small minority or a large majority phenomenon(Liefbroer en Dourleijn, 2006).

 

Cohabiting and married people whoparticipated in the Dutch survey on Family Formation of 2008 were followed upto 7 years after the survey by combining the survey with registrative data.They were considered divorced when the respondent in the survey was no longerpart of a couple according to household information. In a discrete timeanalysis, also controlling for duration of the relationship at the time of thesurvey, age at the start of the relationship, birth cohort and selection(education, religion, divorce of parents), divorce risks for the threerelationship types was investigated. Also, the influence of (1) characteristicsof the match in terms of age difference (less than 5 years)  and educationaldifference (in terms of high, intermediate and lower level of education); (2)investments in terms of having children with the partner and owning a housetogether at the time of the survey;  and (3) relationship satisfaction at thetime of the survey were tested.

 

Results show that unmarried cohabitershave higher dissolution risks than married people with prior cohabitation (seetable 1). Furthermore, there was no difference between married people with andwithout prior cohabitation. Investments, and especially relationshipsatisfaction, were important predictors of divorce, but homogamy was not.Although unmarried cohabiters who already invested in the relationship bybecoming parents or by buying a house together have lower divorce risks thanother cohabiters, adding these variables to the model did not explain thedifferences between cohabiters and married people.

Similar results were found whencohabiters who got married in the 7 year period after the survey were from thatmoment on shifted to the ‘married with prior cohabitation’ group, although thedifferences in divorce risks between married people and cohabiters became moreapparent. Also, interactions between relationship type and relationshipsatisfaction or duration did not reach significance.

 

This implies that even the committed andhappy cohabiters have less stable relationships than the ones who do getmarried. Apparently, there is something extra to getting married. Moving on tomarriage may be a sign of more commitment in itself, but it is also possiblethat cohabiters or cohabiting relationships have other characteristicsincreasing the risk of divorce that were not included in this research, such asdifferent norms and values about relationships, certain personal traits orother types of investments and signs of commitment.

 

Table 1: preliminary results discretetime analysis

Presented in Session 1109: Families and Households