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For years, social scientists have tried to explain why living together before marriage seemed to increase the likelihood of a couple divorcing. Now, new research released by the nonpartisan Council on Contemporary Families gives an answer: It doesn’t. And it probably never has.
This is despite two decades of warnings from academics and social commentators who pointed to studies that claimed a correlation between “shacking up” and splitting up—warnings that increased as the number of couples living together before marriage skyrocketed.
As it turns out, those studies that linked premarital cohabitation and divorce were measuring the wrong variable, says Arielle Kuperburg, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who produced much of the research released Monday.
The biggest predictor of divorce, she says, is actually the age at which a couple begins living together, whether before the wedding vows or after.
Today in infuriating laws that drastically need to be re-examined, Abigal Pesta takes a deep look at the sad case of Ken Baldino, an 18-year-old senior in high school who spent six years in jail for having sex with his girlfriend, a 14-year-old freshman.
Here’s an excerpt:
ON A RECENT RAINY AFTERNOON, Francie Baldino steps into her kitchen and pulls out a favorite photo of her son as a toddler, dressed in a bee costume. Then she sits down at the table and describes the events that sent him to prison.
Baldino was a remarried mother of two when her son, Ken Thornsberry (who uses his father’s surname), met a girl named Emily Lester at a local Tower Records. The two teenagers were living with their fathers in the wake of divorce; both were struggling to find their footing at home and at school, says Baldino. They attended different high schools, but started spending all their free time together. Eventually, they slept together, although they certainly didn’t announce that to their parents.
Lester, now 22 and living in nearby Lake Orion, Mich., remembers the romance fondly. “I’ll never forget that day we met,” she says, recalling evenings spent wandering the county fair with her boyfriend, or listening to him play guitar in his high-school band. “I’ve never loved someone like Ken.”
Her father disapproved of the relationship, Lester says, and told the pair to split up. (Her father didn’t respond to attempts to contact him.)
The teens didn’t listen. “Ken was young,” says Baldino. “He was in love. He thought nothing bad could happen to him.” She admits that she wishes she had paid more attention, but in hindsight says she was focusing too much on running a graphic-design business.
One morning, Thornsberry drove to Lester’s house when he thought her father would be at work. His plan, he says: to pick up some belongings and drive his girlfriend to school. But her father saw Thornsberry outside the home and the two started arguing. Thornsberry kicked open the front door and hurled a sugar bowl at the TV. The father called the police. Thornsberry was arrested for home invasion.
When questioned by detectives, Thornsberry, then 18, admitted to sleeping with his 14-year-old girlfriend. On the advice of his attorney, he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual misconduct and was sentenced to a year in jail followed by three years’ probation, during which time he could not be around minors, including his girlfriend. He would also go on the sex-offender registry, which would list his home address and other personal information, for 25 years.
Keep reading. It’s a long read but well worth it for its examination of the merits of jailing high school lovers because the law says what they’re up to is illegal. What’s most frustrating about this to us is it completely denies the kid, Ken, of a normal young adulthood in which he would’ve learned the skills necessary to be a normal contributing member of society. Nice job, government.
Update: The New York Times' Motherlode blog weighs in, asking, “How do we balance protecting children on the cusp of teenage life with not destroying the lives of teenagers barely over the edge of legal adulthood? Neither jail nor a free pass feels like the right answer.”