CDC Report Give Media Cover to Downplay the Negatives of Shacking Up

Shacking up is an old trend that is growing in popularity. Premarital cohabitation in the United States has increased to a record-high 6.6 million couples, according to the 2010 Census. Among today's married couples, about two-thirds lived together at least once before saying “I do,” according to a CDC report released February 2010.

Taking their cue from studies showing living together before marriage poses long-term risks to relationships, networks usually sound a cautionary note when discussing the issue. But ambiguities in the CDC study released in January 2010 -- which actually supported some long-established findings about the downside of cohabitation – gave the networks the opportunity to suddenly sing a different song.

Broadcast media spun the results and used the study as a cover to show that married couples that lived together before marriage had the same divorce rate as couples who didn't live together.

In the two years leading to the study's release, six broadcast news shows discussed cohabitation, with each one mentioning the negative effects of living together before marriage. Networks recognized that cohabitations lack the stability of marriage. On February 7, 2008, NBC's “Today” show mentioned that jealously is more common among cohabiting couples than married couples due to “insecurity” in cohabitations.

Networks also reported that living together posed a threat to marriage stability. On July 15, 2009, CBS' “Early Show” reported a University of Denver study claiming that “couples who shack up before tying the knot are more likely to get divorced than their (married) counterparts.” Meanwhile, on August 21, 2009, NBC's “Today” show co-host Kathie Lee Gifford also mentioned the “controversial” Denver study, noting that cohabiters have a “higher expectancy of getting divorced.”

After the CDC study came out, the media swiftly changed their position. Since February of this year, six more broadcast stories mentioned cohabitation, but this time with a different message. ABC, CBS and NBC each spent two stories mentioning the increase in cohabitation in a positive light.

The Disputed Report

The CDC report spun by the media was the “Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States,” a 45-page survey based on data from the National Survey of Family Growth gathered in 2002. The study was conducted on a “nationally representative sample” of both men and women.

The report revolved around the average number of years that living together lasts, the time it took to transition into marriage, and both the stability and duration of both marriages and cohabitations.

The study found that the increased risk of divorce came only if couples hadn't made any long-term commitments before living together. According to the report, two-thirds of married couples who were engaged before shacking up and make it past the 10-year mark are likely to stay together.

But conservatives question the legitimacy of the study's numbers. Mike McManus, co-founder of the pro-marriage ministry, Marriage Savers, said the numbers in the CDC report were “unbelievably flawed.” “Those are couples who survived for 10 years,” McManus told the Culture and Media Institute. “Most marriages that fail break up before 10 years. They didn't look at the macro picture; they looked at a select group of couples after 10 years of marriage.”

While the study noted that couples who were not engaged before living together had only a 55 percent chance of their marriage lasting 10 years or more, the report never gave the number of surveyed couples that didn't make it to the 10-year mark. The study's authors were not available to respond to a CMI inquiry about the number of surveyed couples that didn't reach 10 years of marriage.

The study distinguished between couples that we engaged before living together and couples who cohabited without making concrete decisions to marry, but several reporters missed making that distinction in their coverage of the report. ABC's “World News with Diane Sawyer” reported on March 2 that there was “little difference” in divorce rates between the two types of married couples. Sawyer never mentioned the couples had to have been engaged first.

The next day, March 3, Juju Chang of ABC's “Good Morning America” reported that the difference was “no longer significant,” and that the CDC study was proof of “change” in marital success among cohabiting couples. Chang also failed to report that the lack of difference was only among couples who were engaged before living together.

Networks used the increasing talk about the CDC study to take a stab at marriage. On its June 23 broadcast, CBS' “Early Show” co-host Erica Hill featured psychologists and “marriage” experts that justified cohabitation and downplayed the benefits of marriage.

NBC used the cohabitation buzz to put a plug in for cohabitation agreements. On February 23, NBC's “Today” show co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb downplayed the risks of living together by encouraging couples to sign up for prenups for cohabitation since “most couples don't stay together.”

Aside from the numbers, the study also noted that couples that live together before marriage tend be affected negatively, both in marital satisfaction and children's education. The report noted that the academic outcomes of children whose parents live together are “poorer” compared to children of married parents, a finding connected to the “lower household incomes” and “greater instability” found in cohabiting unions.

Unsurprisingly, none of the six post-CDC report news stories mentioned these negatives of living together.

Networks: Marriage an Antiquated Institution

Young adults aren't rushing down flower-decked church aisles as early as their parents did.

“Love and marriage seem to be a notion from a different time,” reported CBS “Early Show” co-host Erica Hill during the June 23 broadcast. Hill noted the recurring trend of “happily unmarried couples” with the younger generation bringing a “whole new approach to happily ever after.”

Guest panelists Robi Ludwig and Brian Balthazar explained the shift in attitudes toward marriage. “It was taboo once to live together,” Balthazar said. “So now it's like, I can do that and not get married? What's wrong with that, you know? It's a great test run.”

Meanwhile, Ludwig noted that couples that live together have less pressure because, “they know that they can get out easier.” Ludwig also explained other reasons couples put off marriage, including not being ready, women having more options when giving birth and marriage “signify[ing] death to certain people.”

Although the reasons that Ludwig outlined were all based on the couples' self-interest and made marriage look antiquated, Hill never mentioned the ways marriage benefits both the couple and their children.

Not Quite Married

Playing house isn't just for kindergarteners – young adults are reverting back to the youthful habit, only this time with actual apartments and houses.

Author Hannah Seligson examined this phenomenon by interviewing couples who lived together for long periods of time before getting married – or didn't want get married at all – in her book, “A Little Bit Married.” Released in January 2010, “ALBM” chronicles what Seligson described to CNN as a “confusing, new romantic rite of passage.” Seligson's book also stressed the “social acceptability” around premarital cohabitation and the delay of marriage.

“ALBM” attracted network television's attention soon after its release. Seligson appeared in two stories on CBS' “Early Show” and one story on NBC's “Saturday Today.”

Seligson told NBC “Saturday Today” co-host Amy Robach on March 27 that the rise in cohabiting couples has brought about a new type of prenup agreement to create a “marriagelike commitment without commitment” in order to “protect themselves.”

And while Seligson told CBS' Harry Smith on March 9 that her book was more of a “cautionary tale” about cohabitation, Seligson still advocated the “try before you buy” philosophy when she told a cohabiting couple on the “Early Show” that they were “in great shape” because they hadn't lived with anyone else prior to that relationship.

Seligson promoted the idea that cohabitation comes with little or no repercussions. "If you only live with one person before you get married, you'll have a no higher chance of getting divorced,” Seligson claimed, a statement which also went unchallenged by Smith.

Both Smith and Seligson neglected to consider that cohabitation might be the main reason Americans find marriage “confusing.” Marriage Savers' Mike McManus, who also co-authored a book about cohabitation called, “Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers,” told the Culture and Media Institute that society's accepting attitude toward cohabitation has contributed to the decline of marriage.

“Cohabitation is really a double cancer of marriage,” McManus said. “It diverts millions from getting married and increases divorce rate of those who do marry.”

Caution Still Needed

The networks may have changed their tune about living together, but their positive coverage should not crowd out the real results of cohabitation. Despite what many in the media would have the public believe, cohabitation is still a major cause for concern regardless of social acceptance.

Married couples who lived together first exhibited poorer communication, satisfaction and commitment in their relationships than couples who didn't live together before marriage, according to a family studies report from the University of Denver cited in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Cohabitation has contributed not only to the “collapse of marriage” but also the “steep rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing,” according to studies compiled by the Heritage Foundation this year. Heritage's Christine Kim also quoted research that found that children of unmarried mothers have an increased risk of poverty, poor academic achievement and teen pregnancy.

The majority of broadcast media jumped to the defense of cohabitation at an alarmingly quick rate without presenting all of the facts openly. To toss aside established findings about a topic and blur the actual details of the report is evidence of sloppy reporting and desire to portray cohabitation in a more positive light than it deserves.

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