One of the biggest myths in Western culture, and absolute example of sociologist Peter Berger’s ‘plausibility’ thesis, is that cohabition is absolutely necessary and ideal as a first step towards a marriage will be stable and long-lasting, because it is only in this way that compatibility can be established.
For ‘everybody’ supposedly, particularly within certain age groups within the UK (and other nations of the English-speaking world), this is ‘normal’, and thus has plausibility. This is in spite of statistics that have for decades shown the reverse in a large number of different countries. But who wants to read these?
Why is this? Why such a collective denial of reality? Why do people prefer to believe in the myth? There are no doubt many factors at work here. Huge increases in sexualisation of culture, with a parallel rise in individualism and anti-authority attitudes would seem very likely to help facilitate this. The shame associated with cohabitation no longer applies, as individualism and literacy rise together. Marriage is thereby derided, as, for example, “damning with faint praise” as one cohabitee mother did is connection with her daughter who wanted marriage (albeit after cohabiting herself), as being “traditional”.
As more children are now born outside wedlock in the UK, the opposite is starting to become the case: that cohabiting is the new ‘traditional’, and marriage becoming counter-cultural. So much for the much-vaunted anti-authority culture!
Statistics show that pre-marital cohabiting is correlated to shortened marriage, and is not therefore a recipe for its success. Why might this be?
One interesting and little-known factor is the role played by oxytocin, as observed by Prof. John Caccioppo, a neurologist at the University of Chicago, in his excellent book on “Loneliness”. Why should oxytocin be so significant?
Oxytocin is an hormone and a neurotransmitter. It helps to generate trust in (for example), the mother-baby bond, in breastfeeding and physical contact. Therein lies the problem! It is this function of creating trusting bonds that make oxytocin so significant, for good and harm, depending on how this trust is utilised, and whether it is mutual.
The potential dysfunctions of pre-marital cohabiting lie in if oxytocin is released prematurely, before any kind of strong foundation is laid to bond the relationship.
Bonding of adults cannot be merely based on hormones and neurotransmitters, but on the mundane realities of life, and in particular how much a couple have in common, and how well they communicate, to state two of the most important factors.
Having a common value-system is important (a person with no values is inherently unstable, being driven by any pressure-group, and unable to critically assess people or movements), as is personal maturity (which includes such things as openness, flexibility, being able to forgive, a capacity for appropriate behaviour, and more). All these things are more important for a long-term, stable and loving marriage, than an oxytocin trip. It is wonderful to give and receive physical caresses, but it is not an adequate foundation for a long-term relationship. Oxytocin is obviously very important, because bonding is very important.
But such bonding can be highly dysfunctional, too, depending on earlier parenting and personal values and behaviour. Inappropriate co-dependency is such an example.
On the basis of Ockham’s Razor, that the simplest explanation is often the best one (it is said that people “shout loudest when their argument is at it’s weakest”), these observations about oxytocin have much to commend them. Cohabiting, on average (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is brief―a little over 2 years in the UK.
Marriages last many more years than this. Far from being a basis for tyranny, a good marriage releases a person into new freedom, especially away from that of self-obsession. Indeed, the average for marriages would be even longer, if it were not for the involuntary death of one of the spouses. Even so very simple a gesture as stroking someone’s arm, or a hug, release oxytocin, and thereby start (or reinforce) bonding, and hence increase the potential for a (hopefully) consensual sexual relationship, itself increasing oxytocin-bonding.
So sad, then, when the bond is broken, because of the lack of any substantive foundation! As one man said to the writer, “You just move on”―after four children by four different women. Unsurprisingly, these children have huge issues of identity, immaturity, lack of goals, instability, and more. The father lives in an eternal present, from one woman to another.