Although people have become more accepting of interracial unions, interracial couples continue to report experiencing family opposition, ostracism from kin, and discrimination from neighbors. The opposition tends to be stronger for interracial marriages than for interracial cohabitations. Partly reflecting these challenges, interracial couples cohabit at higher rates than same-race couples. Approximately one-in-five cohabitations involved partners of a different ethno-race, which contrasted with one-in-ten marriages.
Interracial couples’ higher cohabitation rates beget the question: does cohabitation serve a different function for interracial couples than for same-race couples? Specifically, the prospect of facing opposition from family, kin, and friends may mean that interracial couples may have a greater need to cohabit prior to marriage to test their compatibility before entering into a marriage that is meant to be “forever-lasting”. Simultaneously, cohabitation may be interracial couples may be a substitute for marriage, offering a way to enjoy the benefits of married life without the challenges that accompany interracial marriage.
The extent to which interracial cohabitation serves a different role than same-race cohabitation may vary depending on the couple’s joint race/ethnicity. Due to the legacy of anti-miscegenation laws, opposition towards White-Black interracial marriages tends to be more pronounced than it is for other interracial couples.
Most prior work either focus on disparities in the stability and outcome of cohabitations by female partner’s ethno-race or differences between interracial and same-race marriages. Therefore, how the stability and outcome of interracial cohabitation compare with that of same-race cohabitation is largely unknown.
Our study, published in Demographic Research, examined the stability and outcome of interracial cohabitations before and after transitions into marriage. Using data from the 2002 and 2006-2019 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), we examined whether interracial cohabitations were more likely than same-race cohabitations to dissolve or end in a marriage. We also examined whether premarital cohabitation stabilized interracial marriages to a greater extent than same-race marriages. We also documented variations in the stability and outcome of White-Black and White-Hispanic intermarriages.
How the stability and outcome of interracial cohabitations compare with those of same-race cohabitations varies depending on whether or not the cohabitation resulted in a marriage.
The stability and outcome of premarital cohabitations involving White-Black couples mirror closely those of the same-race Black couples. Their probability of transitioning into marriage is slightly lower than those of same-race Black couples. Their probability of separation is slightly higher than those of same-race Black couples. And the stability and outcome of White-Hispanic couples fall in between those of their same-race counterparts. Their probability of transitioning into marriage is lower than that of same-race White couples but higher than that of same-race Hispanic couples; however, their probability of separation mirror closely that of same-race Hispanic couples.
For the cohort of women in our study, premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with a higher risk of marital disruption. These patterns are commonly attributed to the fact that (a) those who cohabit may be a select group who may be more socioeconomically disadvantaged than those who married and (b) cohabitors may forego behaviors like pooling resources or making joint investments that stabilize marriage.
However, there is an exception to this pattern. Premarital cohabitation is negatively associated with a lower risk of marital disruption among White-Black couples. Their probability of marital disruption is lower than that of their peers who transitioned directly into marriage. It is also only slightly higher than that of same-race White couples who cohabited before marriage. The exceptional pattern likely emerges because White-Black couples in intermarriages are a select group who are unusually pro-nuptial, are highly compatible, and/or have made joint investments together which lowers their risk of marital disruption.
Our study offers valuable insights into how structural barriers alter the social significance of cohabitation for interracial couples, particularly White-Black couples. Challenges associated with crossing formidable barriers to intermarriage may have created a greater need for interracial couples to cohabit prior to marriage. Yet, after they transition into marriage, White-Black marriages preceded by cohabitation tend to be stable because only lower shares of White-Black couples transition into marriage.
Kate H. Choi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Research on Social Inequality at Western University in London, ON. Follow them on Twitter @KateHeeChoi