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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Study Finds Aggression More Likely In Cohabitating Couples

A recent article published by the Institute for Family Studies synthesized two prior studies that examined the link between physical aggression and cohabitation. The first study surveyed adults aged 22-29, while the second study surveyed adults aged 18-34. Both concluded that cohabitating couples were more likely to experience aggression (defined as behavior such as pushing, shoving, hitting, etc.) than those who are married or dating and not living together. The cohabitating couples were more likely to report aggression in the previous year, and despite this, those couples were five times more likely to remain together over the next two years.

It is not uncommon for couples to cohabitate before there is a mutual commitment to marriage. These people are, unfortunately, more likely to live in riskier situations and exhibit unhealthy relationship behaviors than those in other living arrangements.

One study revised by the Institute for Family Studies focused on two “commitment dynamics” influential within relationships: dedication and constraint. Dedication can be taken synonymously with commitment: “dedication reflects the desire to be with a person in the future, to form an identity as a couple, to sacrifice for and prioritize the relationship.” In contrast, constraint is more complicated: they “raise the cost of leaving and reinforce staying,” where for example a person may feel an obligation to remain in a relationship because of prior investments, whether financial, emotional, etc.

In both studies, dedication and constraint were analyzed in the greater context of the relationships studied. People reporting more aggression in their relationship experience lower dedication and higher constraint, and this is something more common in couples who cohabitate than those who are married or dating and not living together. And yet even taking into account constraint, dedication, and the overall quality of the relationship, it remains likely that cohabitating relationships that experienced aggression once would continue to experience aggression.

Another aspect more common to those who cohabitate than to married or dating couples is the increased likelihood of an “asymmetrical commitment,” a relationship where one partner is more invested in the well-being of the relationship than the other is. Among married people, this sort of asymmetrical commitment is more likely to exist when the couple cohabitated prior to marriage. Couples with asymmetrical commitment are, in general, more likely to experience aggression and overall low relationship quality.

On the whole, the study found that cohabitation increases the constraints in a relationship. Regardless of whether aggression occurs between cohabitating couples or not, it is important for all members of the Church, especially those in ministry, to be aware of the reality of domestic violence and its prevalence in cohabiting relationships, and be informed of resources available to help.

About the Author

Caty Long is a first year Master of Theological Studies student at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute and currently an office assistant for the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth at the USCCB.