No Increased Risk of Divorce, so Living Together Must Be Okay

To cohabit or not to cohabit.  That is the question.

For years researchers have stated that living together before marriage leads to an increased likelihood of divorce.  New research indicates that this is changing, but does that mean living together before marriage is a good idea?     

The July 29 edition of USA Today makes it appear so.    

From reading the article “Living together isn't just 'playing house,'”  a person would think that living together with just one romantic partner before marriage would decrease the likelihood of future divorce.

Jay Teachman, a sociology professor at Western Washington University, told reporter Sharon Jayson, “You can cohabit with your spouse and not experience increased risk of divorce.  Jayson also reported that Teachman's 2003 study on cohabitation found that it's the number of cohabiting relationships a woman engages in that increases the risk of divorce, not the cohabiting itself.  

Daniel Lichter, a sociologist from Cornell University, found something even more shocking for traditionalists that believe cohabitation increases the risk of divorce.  He told Jayson, "We showed women who only cohabited with their husband had lower rates of divorce than women who didn't cohabit and went straight to marriage. There seems to be less risk than if you cohabit many times or if you don't cohabit at all.”   

Like Teachman, Lichter also found divorce rates are higher for women who live with more than one romantic partner.  A study by Lichter scheduled for publication in December found that the risk of divorce is more than double for women who cohabit more than once.

Jayson failed to include any criticism of these findings in her article, but other scholars continue to wave red flags about the dangers of living together before marriage.  In response to poll results finding that 49 percent of Americans believe cohabitation makes divorce less likely, Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies for Focus on the Family, told Citizenlink that:

The American people are largely clueless on the measurable benefits of marriage and the negative impact of cohabitation.  In fact, one of the best ways to sandbag a marriage before it starts is to live together before marriage.

David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, explained in his 2008 report, Cohabitation Marriage and Child Wellbeing, why the divorce rate may no longer reflect the danger cohabitation poses to relationships.  He wrote:

[M]any ill-matched couples who in earlier years would have gone on to marriage and later divorce, because cohabitation was not possible for them, today cohabit instead.  If and when they break up, which they do in large numbers, their break up is, of course, not reflected in the divorce rate.  

Jayson's article instead provided the proverbial green light for couples who think they might get married one day to move in with each other.  After all, if research says that living together before marriage can decrease the chance of divorce, what's the harm?

Well, other studies have shown that cohabitation does a great deal of damage apart from divorce. Focus on the Family's publication, “Cohabitation Facts,” reports that cohabitation decreases happiness and emotional wellbeing, while increasing the risk of domestic violence for women and physical and sexual abuse for children.  The risk is especially pointed for children not living with their biological fathers, which is “the environment for the majority of children in cohabiting couple households.”

Psychology Today reported in 2005 that “married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer-quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment.” Reporter Nancy Wartik cited a 2004 study by Scott Stanley, director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, which found men that who lived with their spouses before getting married were less committed to their marriages then men who did not cohabit. 

A 2006 study on personal and relational well-being by the Alabama Policy Institute delved deeper into the “poorer marriages” issue, and found that couples who lived together before marriage faced more conflicts, were more likely to hit or throw things during arguments, considered their relationship more likely to end, and reported higher levels of depression than couples who did not live together before marriage. 

A 2005 article co-authored by Stanley cited similar findings and included others such as an increased risk of marital infidelity in couples who lived together before marriage and lower levels of marital satisfaction. 

We all have free will and the power to make choices for ourselves.  But a person needs all of the facts to make good choices, something that Jayson failed to provide.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center