Cohabitation prior to marriage: Pros and Cons

Table of Content

Introduction and Statement of Problem

Increasingly over the past 40 years, cohabitation prior to marriage has gained popularity as a lengthened transition phase between casual dating, a formal engagement and ultimately, marriage. “Over the past few decades, unmarried, heterosexual cohabitation has transformed family patterns in the United States, Canada, and other industrialized nations.” (Crouter, 2002, p.53). Popenoe and Whitehed (1999), Seltzer (2000) and Smock (2000) have argued that the role of unmarried cohabitation in countries has created a new pattern in the society.

Cherlin & Furstenberg (1988); Kiernan (1988) mark that during the past two-three decades, the problem of premarital cohabitation has been incredibly vital. Despite the tendency, relatively few cultures promote cohabitation prior to marriage, and even fewer attest to its’ desirability by supporting government sponsored (i.e. structured medical/insurance/financial/vacation benefit) programs that provide recognized and legal support for unmarried couples.

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The purpose of this research study is not to replicate previous efforts, but to try and understand, from a qualitative nature why couples believe that cohabitation or a “test-run” despite evidence to the contrary, will somehow ensure a more perfect union. Unlike pivotal issues such as abortion or healthcare, cohabitation prior to marriage is rarely addressed as a political, economic or national concern in the press.

It may be due to the fact that in the United States well over half of couples cohabitate before getting married (Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991) and that few politicians would risk alienating a large portion of the adult population. In 1970 only about 500,000 couples lived together in unwedded bliss. Now nearly 5 million opposite sex couples live together outside of marriage; millions more have done it as some point.

Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together (Wartik, 2005). According to a 2002 report issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics the probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce within 5 years is 20 percent while the probability of a premarital cohabitation breaking up within 5 years is 49 percent. After 10 years, the probability of a first marriage ending is 33 percent, compared with 62 percent for cohabitation.

The Beverly LaHaye Institute has tracked the upward trend toward cohabitation – an increase of over 72% since 1990 and at least one-third have children. In their 2000 survey of the nations high school seniors, Bachman, Johnston & O’Malley (Monitoring the Future, 2000) found that 66 percent of boys and 61.3 percent of girls agree or mostly agree with the statement that “it is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married to find out whether they really get along” (Stover, 2002).

A longitudinal study examined differences among couples that cohabited before engagement, after engagement or not until marriage. Survey data and objectively coded couple interaction data were collected for 136 couples (272 individuals) after engagement (but before marriage) and 10 months into marriage. At both time points, the before-engagement cohabiters (59 couples) had more negative interactions, lower interpersonal commitment, lower relationship quality, and lower relationship confidence than those who did not cohabit until after engagement (Kline et al., 2004). In addition, cohabiting couples also report lower levels of sexual exclusivity and sexual satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents (Nock, 1995; Brown & Booth, 1996; Waite & Joyner, 2001 as cited by Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002).

Historically marriage has been an institution designed to preserve and foster a way of life, provide a recognized contractual agreement and to a certain extent, delineate gender roles. What is not appreciated by the public at large, is the fact that married couples have substantial benefits over the unmarried in labor productivity, physical and mental health, general happiness and longevity (Lillard & Waite, 1995, as cited by Popenoe & Whitehead, 2002).

Except for perhaps the short term prenuptial type of cohabitation, and probably also for the post-marriage cohabiting relationships of seniors and retired people who typically cohabit than marry for economic reasons, cohabitation and marriage relationships are qualitatively different (Chevan, 1996). Evidence shows that many people living together before marriage are more unsatisfied with their lives and have more anxiety than married people. “Sexual anxiety is more characteristic of this less permanent living arrangement, rather than sexual freedom, and the absence of an enduring commitment tends to actually hinder sexual satisfaction.”

Research Question and Hypothesis

Given the dismal statistical measures which correlate cohabitation prior to marriage, with an overall decreases in marital satisfaction and an increased likelihood of divorce, the question remains… to what extent is the U.S. population educated on the perils of cohabitation, and why do individuals and couples alike think “we’re different, we really love each other, we’ll be fine”.

The intent of this study is to explore why the participants believe that cohabitation will improve their chances for a successful marriage. Therefore, the research question of the study is how cohabitation prior to marriage correlates with the future success in marriage.

Despite the fact that many experts argue for disadvantages of cohabitation, many authors have expressed an opinion that cohabitation actually leads to a happy marriage. For example, Paulson (1999) marks that “many married couples believe premarital sexual experiences strengthened their marriages”, the findings of Waite (2000) have shown that “many people believe cohabitation is good preparation for marriage because couples can “practice” being married and test their compatibility”, while Cox (2000) believes that premarital cohabitation gives certain psychological advantages to people in their future relationships.

Taylor (2003) concludes that cohabitation is no different from marriage and thus can be even more acceptable by couples because “cohabiting couples typically take upon themselves all the responsibilities and advantages of marriage, such as sexual fidelity, sharing of property, raising children, and so on”, but they still keep their freedom.

Based of the mentioned opinions, it is possible to introduce a hypothesis that cohabitation prior to marriage in many cases leads to a successful marriage because it prepares people for marriage psychologically and offers them a chance to test their compatibility. The purpose of research methods used in the paper is to obtain information relevant to the testing of the hypothesis that premarital cohabitation enables couples to grow closer to each other prior to marriage.

Definitions of Theoretical Constructs

The Cohabitation Perception Test consists of 17 multiple choice questions each with three possible responses. The constructs focus on identifying the issues and depth of knowledge or awareness with respect to cohabitation, the strength of commitment, a personal inventory, projected expectations, reasons and prospects of the future.

The Cohabitation Perception Test Constructs include the following elements:

  • Self – Acceptance
  • Family Acceptance
  • Financial Communication
  • Financial Motivation
  • Financial Security
  • Present thought with respect to the decision.
  • Honesty
  • Sexual Intimacy
  • Monogamy
  • Communication
  • Social Interaction
  • Expectations
  • Commitment
  • Maturity.

Design of the study

Maximum validity of results can be achieved due to the wide use of both qualitative and quantitative methods in the survey. The choice of the optimal alignment among quantitative and qualitative methods of research is very efficient for the validity of research. The study provided in the form of questionnaire is going to combine both qualitative and quantitative approaches. Some elements of quantitative research are applied in the paper through the use of 5-Point Likert scales during the interviews (questions 5 and 7). Likert scales are particularly important for the questionnaire because they enable to measure the level of people’s involvement in premarital cohabitation. Likert scales are considered a very useful approach in hypothesis confirmation.

The questionnaire is created to provide answers to the questions regarding the goals of people engaged in premarital cohabitation. The major variables which will be determined by the study include the interviewees’ perceptions of the following possible advantages of “living together”:

  • Ability to have the same sexual partner without commitment;
  • Possibility to grow closer to one another prior to marriage;
  • Ability to test each other’s compatibility;
  • Ability to live with the partner without risking financial assets.

Pilot testing of the questionnaire will be conducted 1 month prior to conducting the research in order to determine which questions contribute the most to the testing of the hypothesis and which could be excluded.

Population and Sample

The population from which the sample is going to be drawn consists of 100 people (50 men and 50 women) aged 21-45. The people chosen for the sample will have various backgrounds (different professions, different level of education) in order to be able to correlate the success of premarital inhabitation with the financial security of people and their backgrounds. The city in which the survey will take place is New York City because it has a large variety of lifestyles and cultures, and thus its citizens can give valuable information concerning the research question.


There are many research methodologies from which it is possible to choose while testing the hypothesis of the study, including sampling of large accessible populations and application of statistical analysis to interpret the results; surveys of targeted populations with written questionnaires; polling of targeted populations; written survey questionnaires to smaller groups; in-depth follow-up interviewing to validate results of large sampling or surveys; standardized interviews with focus groups; individual interviews with experts or elite designated persons; and many others. However, a questionnaire which includes both the quantitative and qualitative approach is the most valuable for the study.

The questionnaire represented above will provide the most accurate information concerning the behavioral patterns of people engaged in premarital cohabitation. Personal interviews are able to present the points of view of a limited number of professionals while a questionnaire provides information regarding the most important tendencies in the society.

Unfortunately, there is no single research method which can lead researchers to completely accurate results, and the questionnaire used to test the hypothesis in this study cannot give completely accurate results. Every method includes a possibility of making some kind of mistakes. “The two major disadvantages pertain to relevance and accuracy.” (Patzer 1995, p.19). However, accuracy is much higher in research methods based on primary data rather than on secondary data. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the choice of primary sources of data in the survey is well-grounded.

It is necessary to note that the validity of the results is not going to be completely accurate due to the imperfections of the sampling process, which is used in the research. As Trochim remarks, “…you should appreciate that sampling is a difficult multi-step process and that there are lots of places you can go wrong. In fact, as we move from each step to the next in identifying a sample, there is the possibility of introducing systematic error or bias.” (Trochim 2000. Retrieved on November 15 from source:

Despite the fact that it is impossible to find a completely accurate method of research, it is necessary to mark that the negative influence of survey mistakes in the study will be eliminated with the help of extra research. “It is unwise to think that threats to validity and reliability can ever be erased completely; rather, the effects of these threats can be attenuated by attention to validity and reliability throughout a piece of research.” (Cohen, 2000, p.105). As it was mentioned above, pilot testing of the questionnaire will take place a month prior to conducting the survey, and extra research can be provided on the questions which remained unanswered during the first attempt.


The method of survey used in the study is a questionnaire, aiming to determine and share the public’s opinions of cohabitation prior to marriage. The reason of this method choice can be explained through the advantages of questionnaire use. “The questionnaire is a widely used and useful instrument for collecting survey information, providing structured, often numerical data, being able to be administered without the presence of the researcher, and often being comparatively straightforward to analyze.” (Cohen, 2000, p.245).

The questionnaire is going to be given on the street, in public, on a randomly selected hundred respondents involved in premarital cohabitation at present or involved in the past. The interviewer will randomly choose people with characteristics which are valuable for the research (age, sex, way of being dressed etc.) Due to the fact that most of the people in present have been involved in some kind of premarital cohabitation, there will be no major complications with choosing the necessary respondents.

Before conducting the questionnaire, the interviewers will be required to ask questions regarding the interviewees’ profession, current marital status, financial situation, educational background. Those characteristics will be very valuable for the interpretation of the results. The reason why a relatively small sample (100 people) is used is because the standard deviation (or statistical error) of the results based on a random sampling would decrease only marginally with the use of a larger sampling – i.e., the accuracy of the results would not be enhanced by a large sample size. In addition, the sample size needs to be limited due to considerations of added cost and reduced feasibility of conducting the primary research, and more time could be spent on data analysis.

Data Analysis

Data analysis of the obtained information is going to be provided with the help of major econometric methods. The hypothesis of the study is going to be tested judging from the number of people who consider different variables as the most important determinants of the success of the future marriage. For example, the study might be able to show that most of the respondents agree in the opinion that cohabitation brings them closer together and thus serves as a solid background of future marriage. With the help of the econometric methods, correlation could be established between the variables and the success of future marriage after cohabitation. The analysis will also be provided regarding the percentage of men and women, and people of various professions involved in cohabitation prior to marriage, and the differences between their goals.

Description of the Methodology

The methodology used in the study is experimental because the research is provided on the basis of a questionnaire run randomly in the street on 100 people. Experimental methodology is very efficient to test the hypothesis of premarital cohabitation being a solid basis for future marriage. As the research of academic sources has shown, most of the authors argue for disadvantages of premarital cohabitation. Interviewing experts or investigation of secondary sources could not be valuable in this case. Despite the negative perception of cohabitation prior to marriage in the society, more and more people get involved into it in the recent years.

The answer to the question why they consider it the best solution for them can be obtained only with the help of experimental methodology. The quantitative approach used in the survey is going to provide information concerning the correlation between the success of marriage and premarital cohabitation and determine its major determinants. It is possible that the survey will contain a threat of internal validity, but with correct interpretation of results, it can be eliminated.

Analysis and Potential Confounding Variables

The problem issue of the study is identification of major positive features of cohabitation prior to marriage. As the literature review has shown, the popularity of cohabitation has increased during the recent years, but its reasons have not been clearly determined by the authors. The research question of the study is: how cohabitation prior to marriage correlates with the future success in marriage? Why do young people currently think that they will have a great marriage after a few years of living together? All of the variables which have been identified in the research are able to provide information about the major reasons of premarital cohabitation’s popularity among people in the modern society.

Significance and Limitations

Despite the efficiency of the chosen method of testing of the hypothesis, there are some disadvantages of questionnaire, which were taken into consideration. First of all, it was necessary to realize that the results could be not accurate due to the sensitive of some questions to the respondents: “The questionnaire will always be an intrusion into the life of the respondent, be it in terms of time taken to complete the questionnaire, the level of threat or sensitivity of the questions, or the possible invasion of privacy.” (Cohen, 2000, p.245). It has also been noted that the perception of the interviewer in many ways influences the results obtained: “the heart of the problem of questionnaires- that different respondents interpret the same words differently.

Anchor statements’ can be provided to allow a degree of discrimination in response (e.g. ‘strongly agree’, ‘agree’ etc.) but there is no guarantee that respondents will always interpret them in the way that was intended.” (Cohen 2000, p.252). The same disadvantage was noticed by Patzer: “Questions and words in a questionnaire are added, omitted, or reordered during a research project. The same researcher/interviewer interacts differently with either different subjects or the same subjects at different times.” (Patzer 1996, p.25). All of the mentioned disadvantages of the questionnaire were taken into consideration during the creation of the survey.


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