Can living together before marriage serve as a successful test-drive for a relationship, helping couples avoid years of heartache and pain? Research tells another story.
A growing number of young people are cohabiting today, believing that the cohabiting relationship can serve as a successful testing ground for marriage and, therefore, lessen chances of divorce. In fact, recent research shows that 46% of all cohabiting relationships are seen as precursors to marriage by the couple.1 And over 90 percent of cohabitors report they plan to marry someone, if not their current partner, at some point in their lives.2
But does cohabiting before marriage decrease people’s chances for divorce? Unfortunately, the research data collected over the past twenty-five years indicates just the opposite is true. Cohabiting relationships are more likely to lead to divorce.
On the basis of the analysis provided so far, we must reject that argument that cohabitation provides superior training for marriage or improves mate-selection.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University find “it has been consistently shown that, compared to spouses who did not cohabit, spouses who cohabit before marriage have higher rates of marital separation and divorce.”3 Sociologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison report, “Recent national studies in Canada, Sweden, and the United States found that cohabitation increased, rather than decreased, the risk of marital dissolution.”4 This was also found to be true in the Netherlands.5
A leading researcher on cohabitation from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, reports:
Contrary to conventional wisdom that living together before marriage will screen out poor matches and therefore improve subsequent marital stability, there is considerable empirical evidence demonstrating that premarital cohabitation is associated with lowered marital stability.6
Additional researchers found, “cohabitation is not related to marital happiness, but is related to lower levels of marital interaction, higher levels of marital disagreement and marital instability.”7 They conclude, “On the basis of the analysis provided so far, we must reject that argument that cohabitation provides superior training for marriage or improves mate-selection.”8
Research conducted at Yale and Columbia University and published in American Sociological Review found:
The overall association between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability is striking. The dissolution rate of women who cohabit premaritally with their future spouse is, on average, nearly 80 percent higher than the rate of those who do not.
Other studies show that those who have any type of pre-marital cohabiting experience have a 50 to 100 percent greater likelihood of divorce than those who do not cohabit premaritally.10 This data has led researchers to conclude that the enhanced chance of divorce after cohabitation “is beginning to take on the status of an empirical generalization.”11
Why the Greater Likelihood of Divorce?
There is really no debate in the social science literature on whether premarital cohabitation increases a couple’s risk of divorce. The question scholars wrestle with is why?
One theory is the selection hypothesis: people who are more likely to favor cohabitation are less likely to value relational permanence and are therefore, more likely to divorce. The other theory asserts that the experience of cohabiting actually contributes to later relational instability.
How Cohabiting Harms Relationships
Although researchers have not come to strong conclusions on the above, there is evidence to indicate that the experience of cohabiting can contribute to a greater likelihood of divorce. A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family finds, “Spouses who cohabited before marriage demonstrated more negative and less positive problem solving and support behaviors compared to spouses who did not cohabit.”
And these researchers explain that the experience of cohabiting led to the decrease in problem solving skills.12
In addition, another study published in the American Sociological Review found that periods of cohabitation led to more individualistic attitudes and values, which are contrary to healthy marital attitudes.13 Another study found “cohabiting experiences significantly increase young people’s acceptance of divorce” by persuading them that “intimate relationships are fragile and temporary in today’s world.”14
This very strong body of data led Barbara Dafoe Whitehead to starkly declare, “cohabitation is not to marriage what spring training is to baseball.”15
In building a successful, life-long, happy marriage, practice does not make perfect.
Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies for Focus on the Family. This article was first published in 2004.
1 Lynne N. Capser and Suzanne M. Bianchi, Continuity and Change in the American Family, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), chapter 2.
2 John D. Cunningham and John K. Antill, “Cohabitation and Marriage: Retrospective and Predictive Comparisons,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11 (1994): 77-93.
3 Catherine Cohan and Stacey Kleinbaum, “Toward a Greater Understanding of the Cohabitation Effect: Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Communication,” Journal of Marriage and Family 64 (2002): 180-192.
4 Elizabeth Thomson and Ugo Colella, “Cohabitation and Marital Stability: Quality or Commitment?” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54 (1992): 259-267.
5 James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem, (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), p. 5.
6 Zheng Wu, “Premarital Cohabitation and Postmarital Cohabiting Union Formation,” Journal of Family Issues 16 (1995): 212-232.
7 Alan Booth and David Johnson, “Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Success,” Journal of Family Issues 9 (1988): 255-272.
8 Booth and Johnson, 1988, p. 261.
9 Neil Bennett, Ann Blanc and David Bloom, “Commitment and Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability,” American Sociological Review 53 (1988): 127-138.
10 William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “The Relationship Between Cohabitation and Divorce: Selectivity or Causal Influence?” Demography 29 (1992): 357-374.
11 Alfred DeMaris and K. Vaninadha Rao, “Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability in the United States: A Reassessment,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992) 178-190.
12 Cohan and Kleinbaum, 2002, p. 180, 189.
13 Linda J. Waite, Frances Goldschieder and C. Witsberger, “Nonfamily Living and the Erosion of Traditional Family Orientations Among Adults,” American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 541-554.
14 Axinn and Thornton, 1992, p. 357, 372.
15 Wilson, 2002, p. 6.