Does premarital cohabitation have a negative impact on the stability of marriage? Empirical evidence for the Italian case

Roberto Impicciatore, Università Bocconi, Milano

It has been underlined that at the micro level, divorce rates are higher for couples whose marriage was preceded by cohabitation. This result could be explained by two kinds of mechanisms: selectivity and causation. Firstly, individuals who cohabit before marriage are generally less oriented to perceive marriage as an "institution" with respect to individuals who marry directly, i.e. they are characterized by a stronger attachment to individualistic values, typically associated with propensities to union dissolution. From the causal point of view, the experience of cohabitation could develop different attitudes and value orientations associated with behaviours that make success in marriage more difficult. At the opposite, we can hypothesize that a period of cohabitation means a first and useful screening mechanism: it gives the chance to gain in advance information toward the potential spouse and the kind of life the couple would entail, therefore constituting a protection factor toward divorce. Using micro-level data from “Longitudinal Survey on Italia Households (ILFI)” and developing multi-process models, we try understand how marital disruption in Italy is influenced by pre-marital cohabitation and which mechanism between selectivity and causation is more important in the Italian case. In Italy, cohabitations are growing but, compared to the most of European countries, their diffusion is still low. Therefore, we can imagine that in this country the choice to cohabit is strongly related to specific values and attitudes that easily lead to higher risk of marital disruption. In other words, where the practice of cohabitation is less widespread, the selectivity could play a more important role. As a consequence, in Italy the increasing diffusion of cohabitations does not necessarily mean higher divorce rates in the future. If it not the case, i.e. if the analysis reveals that causation is the more important mechanism, we can expect that marital disruption in Italy will further increase.

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Presented in Session 53: Marital dissolution