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Is It Okay to 'Go Ahead and Shack Up'?

A recent study suggests that cohabiting couples do not face a greater risk of divorce after they marry. But the whole picture is a bit more complicated.
By Scott Stanley


Editor’s note: Our culture has drifted so far from God’s standards on sexual morality that premarital sex and cohabitation are often considered to be normal and necessary steps toward making a commitment to marriage. Over the years research has suggested that cohabiting couples face a higher risk of divorce when they marry, but recently the media highlighted a study that challenges these findings. Scott Stanley, a research professor at the University of Denver who has studied and written about cohabitation, wrote a response on his blog, Sliding vs. Deciding.  Here is a shortened version of his article:

Cohabitation is trending big in the news once again. Did you hear? Here are just a few of the headlines based on a recent research study:

          "Go ahead and shack up"

          "Call Your Dad: Living Together Before Marriage Does Not Lead to Divorce"

          "Cohabitation Doesn't Cause Divorce, After All"

          "Living Together Does Not Affect Divorce Rates"

          "Debunked: Cohabitating couples not more likely to divorce"

I think most people absorbing some aspect of these stories (and all those like them) would have gotten the message that there are no risks to cohabiting. The stories were sparked by a study just published in the Journal for Marriage and Family. As one of the articles says:

New research finds that premarital cohabitation isn't linked with divorce at all. Arielle Kuperberg, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, finds that when accounting for the age of moving in together, there is no difference in divorce rates between cohabiters and those who moved in after marriage. "Cohabitation does not cause divorce—yay," Kuperberg told Live Science, adding the exclamation because about two-thirds of new marriages in the United States start with cohabitation.

Kuperberg asserts that scores of researchers have had it wrong for decades, and that maybe there never has been an association between cohabiting before marriage and divorce. She asserts that what was misunderstood all these years is that cohabiters are more likely to divorce, not because they cohabited, but because they tended to start living together when they were too young to either be making a wise choice in a mate or to take on the roles of marriage.

I should note that social scientists do not have any control over headlines and have little control over the content of stories on their work. You can tell in some media reports that what Kuperberg was suggesting from her study was nuanced, but that does not mean that the average consumer of such headlines and stories understood a nuanced story or how cohabitation could be associated with potential risks for her or him.

So what’s the problem if someone did assume from the media that there is no risk for cohabiting prior to marriage, in a pretty general, non-nuanced way? Consider the following research findings—findings based on many excellent studies:

  • Serial cohabitation is associated with greater risk for divorce. In this context, serial cohabitation means living with more than one partner before marrying. Cohabiting with more than just the person you end up marrying is associated with poorer outcomes in marriage.
  • Cohabiting unions are decreasingly likely to end in marriage.
  • Cohabiting with your eventual mate before marriage or before having clear, mutual plans for marriage is associated with lower marital satisfaction in marriage and higher risk for divorce.
  • Cohabiting before having a mutual and clear intention to marry is on the rise. 
  • The rate of unplanned pregnancies is much greater among unmarried, cohabiting women than it is among married women.
  • The transition into living together is associated with sharply increasing constraints of the sort that make it harder to break-up, yet the kind of commitment (dedication) that is most strongly associated with happy, strong relationships levels off.
  • Having sex earlier in a relationship is associated with lower marital quality, partly because moving quickly to sex is associated with moving quickly to cohabiting. That is, for some couples, sex too soon leads to cohabiting too soon, which can lead to a poorer foundation for a marriage.

Based on headlines and some stories in the media, many people may come to believe that there are no risks inherent in some patterns of cohabitation. But does that conclusion seem consistent with the findings I just listed? Personally, I’d prefer there to be more caution in the wind.

 

© Copyright 2014 by Scott Stanley.  Scott is a research professor at the University of Denver who conducts studies on marriage and romantic relationships, and he is co-author of a book on marriage, A Lasting Promise. This article is adapted by permission from an article originally published in his blog, Sliding vs. Deciding.  Click here to read the complete article, which includes references to the studies mentioned in this article.  Also, click here for a summary of the published research he and his colleagues have conducted on cohabitation.

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