Over the course of the last half-century, living together before marriage has gone from rare and heavily stigmatized to normal and commonplace. At the same time, divorce rates have more than doubled, going from 20-25% of all marriages ending in divorce in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, to almost 50% today. Many couples, particularly young couples, believe that by cohabiting before marriage, they will be better able to choose a compatible marriage partner, and go into the marriage with a more accurate view of how they and their partner will solve conflict, divide responsibility, and how compatible they are both emotionally and sexually. However, most studies have found that couples that cohabit before marriage are more likely to get a divorce within the first ten years of marriage. Researchers are divided as to whether cohabitation itself is to blame for the increase in divorce rates, or whether other factors, such as socio-economic status, childhood family life, or level of education that are statistical factors for divorce are the same factors that lead to a predilection for premarital cohabitation. Using studies from the last ten years, this paper will argue that as cohabitation becomes societally normalized the likelihood of divorce will correlatively decrease, and that cohabitation on its own does not contribute to an unsuccessful or unstable future marriage. For the purposes of this paper, there will be two limitations on the studies and data collections used.
The paper will focus only on studies on heterosexual couples, as legal same-sex marriage is too new for any meaningful data sets to have been accumulated. Additionally, the study will only look at couples that cohabit with the eventual goal of getting married, as opposed to couples that consider legal marriage to be unnecessary or undesirable in their union. Most studies presented thus far have shown a strong positive correlation between cohabitation and eventual dissolution of marriage. One study, published by the National Council on Family Relations (Dush, Cohan & Amato, 2003), offered two perspectives on why this may be the case. One perspective which is widely viewed as being a large contributing factor to this positive correlation is selection, that “people who cohabit before marriage differ from noncohabitors and that these differences increase the likelihood of poor marital quality and divorce” (p. 540). Factors that may have an impact include a “low level of education, being poor, growing up with divorced parents, holding non-traditional attitudes toward marriage, or being nonreligious” (p.540). These factors appear to be particularly statistically significant in studies on couples that cohabited prior to 1990, as cohabitation before then was far less common and considered nonnormative by general society. Therefore, the risk factors for divorce would have been inextricably linked to the factors of likelihood of cohabitation. However, as premarital cohabitation becomes more and more commonplace, with an estimated 68% of marriages that took place between the 1997 and 2001 beginning with cohabitation (Copen, Daniels, Vespa & Mosher, 2012, p. 2), and societal acceptance of cohabitation increasing, with one poll showing only 43% believing premarital cohabitation was a bad thing, with 54% of respondents believing it was either a good thing or made no difference (Pew Research, 2010), the impact of the selection perspective should be predicted to decrease. However, this prediction was somewhat disproved by Copen, et al., as when they controlled for these selection factors, “although the gap in the odds of divorce between cohabitors and noncohabitors narrowed after controlling for the demographic selection factors, the relationship between cohabitation and divorce remained significant” (p. 545).
The second perspective that has been posited is the experience of cohabitation perspective, which states that “cohabitation itself increases the likelihood of marital dysfunction above and beyond the characteristics that spouses bring to their relationships”, by, for example, making couples “more accepting of divorce that they had been after cohabiting”, or by increasing “the risk of marital dysfunction by fostering individualistic attitudes and behaviors that are incompatible with interdependent marital roles” (p. 541). While some of this may also be individual selection (for example, women who cohabit may be more likely to desire financial and social independence from their mates), it may also be an effect of living together without the legal commitment of marriage. Another influence supporting this factor may be in the choices men and women make for potential cohabitation partners as opposed to potential marriage partners. As the potential impact of relationship failure is seemingly more significant for marriage versus cohabitation, individuals may be more inclined to make riskier partnership choices. However, this may not necessarily affect the length or outcome of the relationship, as according to the same study, living together “may set processes into motion that culminate in marriage, even to a riskier partner.
Cohabiting partners acquire shared possessions, pets and children; they invest time in their relationships; and they benefit from economies of scale” (p.547). In addition to these practical factors, the study suggest that the couple may feel a “cognitive dissonance about breaking off a relationship in which partners have made an investment, as well as pressure from family and friends to marry” (p. 547). This gradual change from mere cohabiting to marriage is what Stanley, Rhoades & Markman (2006) calls “sliding versus deciding” (p.505). This concept refers to couples that, although not committed enough to marry each other, decide to cohabit, and gradually change their relationship in a “nondeliberative and incremental process” (p.505) towards marriage without ever acquiring the requisite commitment to each other and the marriage bond. Despite this lack of commitment, couples may stay together, not because of a feeling of dedication to the relationship, but due to fears about the potential costs of leaving, including the fear of “few alternatives to one’s relationship or partner, concern for children’s welfare, values about divorce, social pressure, structural investments, and termination procedures” (p. 503). This gradual relationship change not only leads to couples getting married who would probably have ended the relationship if “constraints had not increased inertia to stay put”, but this lack of corresponding deliberation “may lead to increased vulnerability at times of future stress” (p. 506), as one partner may question the other’s actual level of commitment when not explicitly expressed at the marriage’s outset.
This ambiguity of commitment would obfuscate the true nature of the relationship to the participating partners, and it is this resulting uncertainty that may lead to a lower level of marital satisfaction and a higher risk of eventual marriage dissolution. Supporting this theory of the experience perspective instead of the selection perspective, the study found the following: Those who began cohabiting prior to engagement had more negative interactions, lower levels of interpersonal commitment to their parents, lower relationship quality, and lower levels of confidence in their relationships than those who cohabited only after engagement or not at all before marriage; these effects were significant even after controlling for age, ethnicity, education, income, length of relationship, religiosity, and duration of premarital cohabitation (p. 503). This information could therefore lead one to believe that it is not so much the act of cohabitation with a partner which increases the risk of marital dissatisfaction and instability, but the corresponding low level of commitment one finds in a cohabiting arrangement as compared to a direct marriage. With this information, then, there seems to be little reason to believe that cohabitation is at all beneficial for couples looking to eventually marry. However, year-by-year rates of cohabitation continue to rise. So it is important to look deeper into the research to discover if this trend will be ultimately harmful to marriage as an institution. It is first important to note whether attitudes towards the goal of cohabitation are changing. Some studies, particularly ones that focus on cohabitation trends in Western Europe, are showing an increasingly negative correlation between premarital cohabitation and divorce rates.
One study in particular by Svarer (2004) found no statistical disadvantage of cohabiting couples compared to couples who entered into a direct marriage, discovering that the hazard rate for couples without premarital cohabitation is actually higher in the first few years of marriage. In fact, hazard rates “do not reach the same level until the couples have been married for eight years”, indicating that “premarital cohabitation decreases the instantaneous probability of divorce” (p.525). Svarer also makes an important distinction often missing from other studies, in that he recognizes the fact the time spent in the cohabited unions is not generally included in the data sets. This omission could potentially radically skew the data towards showing a positive correlation between cohabiting couples and marriage dissolution. As studies have shown an accumulative effect on marriage unhappiness and instability over time, couples that have begun their union for some time prior to getting married will be further into the process of marriage psychologically than those who did not cohabit, and therefore will be statistically more likely to divorce in a shorter period of time. By factoring in the total length of the union, according to Svarter, one would be expected to find a much more similar divorce rate over time between the two factions. This theory is supported by data collected by Vaus, Xu & Weston in a 2005 Australian study. The authors here note that as this decline begins in cohabiting couples at the beginning of their cohabitation, but in married couples at the beginning of their marriage, this leads to a skewing of overall statistics.
This led Vaus et al. to posit a third perspective on the failure rate of pre-cohabiting marriage failure, which they called the “measurement artifact” (p.100), whereby “the way stability is typically measured – from the start of the marriages rather than the start of the living-together union – may exaggerate any real difference in the stability of relationships involving direct marriage” (p.100). The same study also found a declining statistical connection between cohabitation and divorce, particularly among newer marriages. This, they feel, is a direct result of the individuals ability to screen out potential partners, noting that whole the average length of cohabitation was 17 months in a 1970-78 study, this rose to 37 months by 1995-2001, allowing for more time to screen and select sustainable marriage partners. They also noted that of the cohabitating couples, 64% went on to marry the person they were living with in 1970-78, while by a study spanning 1990-94, this rate had decreased to 41%, suggesting individuals were becoming more selective (p.103). By analyzing the statistical progression towards equanimity between the two groups in studies over time, “the probability of separation of direct marriages has been increasing with each marriage cohort, while that of indirect marriages has been declining” (p. 115-16). These findings are supported by a recent study that found the “cohabitation effect” was declining, and that, broadly speaking, “women and men who cohabited with their first spouse and were engaged when they began living together had about the same probability of marriage survival at 20 years as women and men who had cohabited with their first spouse, but were not engaged when they began living together (National Health Statistics Report, 2012, p.9). Despite evidence suggesting that marriages that begin with a period of premarital cohabitation has a higher failure rate, this evidence is fundamentally flawed by being based on data collected on marriages that began before cohabitation was fully normalized. Additionally, it does not count time spent in cohabitation before marriage as part of the overall union of the couple.
Therefore, when comparing marriages that have lasted less than a certain number of years, the overall time spent as a couple becomes irrelevant to the data, although it could be incredibly relevant in terms of the overall accuracy of the data set, as shown by the studies by Svarver. Finally, while attitudes to marriage as an institution was often controlled for as a selective process in couples who cohabit, negative attitudes towards divorce, whether cultural or religious, were not likewise controlled for, leading to a potential disparity in the results, as couples who have a strong moral or ethical objection to cohabitation may also be more likely to stay in unhappy and unsuccessful marriages for far longer than their pro-cohabitation peers. This theory seems to have some support among studies showing the decreasing divorce rate differential as cohabitation becomes more normalized and societally acceptable. As cohabitation becomes more commonplace, there are also fewer stresses, both socially and by family, on cohabiting couples to marry before they are fully committed. This commitment to an individuals chosen partner, whether spousal or otherwise, is statistically a much larger factor to ultimate marriage success than simply whether or not a couple cohabits before marriage. By ensuring that both individuals are fully committed to each other and the future of their relationship before entering into the marriage, couples who cohabit can avoid the potential dangers of entering into a non-direct marriage.
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