Cohabitation is trending big in the news once again. Did you hear? Let’s talk about the news and what it means. Here are just a few of the headlines based on a study, just out.

My personal favorite is the first one, but the most curious headline, to me, is the second. I’d think you should want to tell both father and your mother the good news. And what parent does not love to hear about the latest in social science findings from their children?

I have a multiple-choice question for you.

Which message below do you think is the closest to what the average person took away from these headlines and stories?

A. There is no risk to living with someone before you marry.

B. There is no added risk for divorce in a marriage if you lived with your future mate before marrying.

C. People who only ever cohabited with the person they marry, after having mutually clarified plans for marriage, are at no greater risk for divorce or lower marital happiness than those who wait until marriage to live together.

Got your answer? If you are paying close attention to the headlines, you may have picked answer B. I will give you half credit if you did; but only half credit because I think answer A is the best answer to the question I asked. However, those who have been reading the media stories carefully may well have gotten the message in answer B. If you know a lot of research on cohabitation, you might have picked answer C. But that was a trick answer. Sorry about that. Answer C is close to what I’d say is a correct answer if I’d asked you what the research shows about cohabiting prior to marriage—but that is not the question that I asked.

Most people absorbing some aspect of recent news stories would conclude that there are no risks to cohabiting.

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. Can I prove that this is what the average person took away? Not really. It would be a fascinating research project to test what people concluded from the media buzz. But if I’m on a limb in this, it seems like a pretty safe one to me. Of the stories I link to above, I think the third one does give important and interesting nuances, particularly later in the piece. I do not think you have to agree with me about what the average person might have understood from these recent stories to consider other points I’ll make here about various risks associated with some patterns of cohabiting before marriage.

The headlines above were sparked by a study just published in the Journal for Marriage and Family. The study’s author is Arielle Kuperberg of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her bio says one of her interests is “examining (and sometimes overturning) modern day myths about romantic relationships.” I would say that her purported findings are consistent with this professional interest.

Here are some quotes from that third story I linked to above:

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.

I like aspects of Kuperberg’s study. It is novel and clever. In analyzing the risk for divorce associated with cohabiting prior to marriage, Kuperberg focused on the age that people moved in together rather than the age at which people marry, finding that the former is more important than the latter in understanding divorce risk. When she controls for the age people were when they moved in with their partners, the association between cohabiting prior to marriage and divorce gets weaker than it otherwise seems to be. In some analyses, she adds enough control variables to reduce the association to zero, which is the basis of her asserting in the media that there is no risk for divorce based on cohabiting prior to marriage. If that sounds pretty technical, that’s because it is. That is as technical as I am going to get in this piece. (I plan to write another more technical comment on her study soon, where I will describe what I like and what I am concerned about in her statistical procedures.)

At the heart of it, 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. This logic is akin to the well-replicated, robust finding that marrying young is associated with greater odds of divorce. Given that, why wouldn’t moving in together at a young age also be a problem? Of course it would be. Both relationship transitions (cohabitation or marriage) result in increased constraints on your options in life; I and my colleague Galena Rhoades have been arguing for a while now that it’s important to be making careful decisions when one is about to go through a transition, like cohabitation, that restricts future options.i

Before I go further, 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.ii 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.iii
  • Cohabiting unions are decreasingly likely to end in marriage.iv
  • Cohabiting with your eventual mate before having clear, mutual plans for marriage is associated with lower marital satisfaction and higher risk for divorce.v Among those who are currently cohabiting, those with clear plans for marriage have stronger relationships.vi
  • Cohabiting before having a mutual and clear intention to marry is on the rise.vii
  • The rate of unplanned pregnancies is much greater among unmarried, cohabiting women than it is among married women.viii
  • 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.ix
  • 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.x  (Not sure how that could be? See the prior bullet point and think about what it may be like to get stuck in a relationship that is not as good a fit for you as one you might have ended up in if you’d not made it harder to break up by cohabiting with your current partner.xi)

These are solid research findings but you should know that there are different possible explanations for them. Some aspects of risk associated with cohabitation are due to what social scientists call selection effects. Selection effects are factors that can explain why some people experience poor outcomes that appear to be associated with some behavior (for example, cohabiting) when the poor outcomes are really more associated with other characteristics in one’s life (for example, poverty). It is very clear that some of the higher risk patterns related to cohabitation are more common for people at serious economic disadvantage. For example, with poverty, one will have additional pressures to cohabit in situations where it may be extra risky. I refer you to the thoughtful comments in the later part of the Live Science story; the research by Sharon Sassler is quite thoughtful on such issues.

Some aspects of risk associated with cohabitation are due to selection effects. Other aspects of risk are causal.

On the other hand, these findings I list above surely reflect some aspects of risk that are causal. That is, at times, a person can make a choice (like not to move in with a particular partner at a particular time) that improves their odds of eventually having a lasting, satisfying marriage—which may well be with someone other than the person they decided not to move in with. When wrestling with selection versus causality (not my topic today), it’s useful to think clearly about what a person has or does not have control over. If a person could behave differently, and choose one option over another that is on a less risky path, that behavior is causally related to the quality of life.

Spoiler alert. I think (with important exceptions) that people can make choices that improve their odds in love and marriage if they understand what is risky and why. Kuperberg believes this also, as you shall see below, though her current work is mostly focused on the risk of partnering up at too young an age.

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?

Imagine a woman, Susie, who is in her early 20s, who absorbed the message that cohabitation before marriage is not risky. Maybe she even shared this great news with her father and mother and friends. Good news is contagious, you know. She’s been in a relationship for a couple of months with a man named Jake. She likes Jake, but she isn’t quite sure if he’s right for her (as in, right for marriage and her future). Since she likes him and wants to see if this could go the distance—and she’s been reassured in her sense that cohabitation is not risky—she and Jake go ahead and move in together. Worst case, she thinks, she can use this time together to test the relationship. (By the way, that’s among the least good answers you can have for why you might live with someone.xii)

Now Susie and Jake are sharing a single address. They don’t take too much notice of the fact that they have now made it harder to break up even though they are far from having figured out if they have a future together. It’s just harder to break up when cohabiting compared to dating.

Susie and Jake like each other. There is a lot of attraction and, now that they are under the same roof, there is a lot of sex. This is not exactly a suspenseful television show where you cannot see where the script-writer is headed. Susie and Jake have a child—a child they did not plan to have. As noted above, cohabiting couples are both less likely than in the past to eventually marry, and they are more likely than couples who have married to have a child that they did not plan on having. Susie and Jake liked each other enough to move in together, but they had not developed any kind of strong, mutual commitment to a life together, much less a commitment to raising a child together.

After living together for two years, Susie and Jake break up. Since they were living together and have a child, the process of breaking up took a lot more time and a lot more pain than it would otherwise have taken. Of course, this is not a very unusual story. Lots of couples live together before marriage. Many of these couples move in together before there is any mutual commitment to a future, before there is any mutual commitment to raise a child together, and before even any clear discussion or decisions about what living together means.xiii  Now, in this context, and thinking about Susie and Jake, does it still sound like there are no risks associated with cohabiting prior to marriage?

This next point is pretty crucial, technically. As far as I can tell, Kuperberg’s study and conclusions do not directly address the type of situation I just described with Susie and Jake. Her analysis is focused on couples who married and whether or not those couples had cohabited prior to marrying. But Susie and Jake’s story is also a story about cohabitation before marriage. It’s just not a story about their marriage. And it is a story about higher risk.

Imagine that Susie had avoided moving in with Jake, perhaps because she was a little more wary about the implications of moving in with someone she had only known for two months. In fact, imagine that they do not move in together but, instead, they continue dating each other—and then they break up three months later. And they do not have a child. What do you think? Are Susie and Jake better off for not having moved in together in the first place?

Back to Kuperberg’s study and report. As I understand her analyses, here is one way to summarize her findings: For people who only ever live with the one person they end up marrying, and who do not have a child prior to cohabiting, and who wait to cohabit or marry until after the age 23, the risk for divorce related to cohabiting before marriage is very low. I don’t actually believe her study supports a conclusion that is this strong, but I think it’s close to what one would conclude if you accepted all the assumptions of her work. In fact, consistent with this, she gives some advice at the conclusion of her journal article:

This research also suggests that young couples wishing to avoid divorce would be better served by delaying settling down and forming coresidential unions until their mid-20s when they are older and more established in their lives, goals, and careers, whether married or not at the time of coresidence, rather than avoiding premarital cohabitation altogether. (Kuperberg, 2014, p. 368)

You may or may not agree with this advice, but this quote from her journal article is a lot more circumspect than some of the messages that just blew through our culture over the past couple of weeks. I come back to where I started. What message do you think people absorbed with all the recent stories on the good news about cohabitation? Personally, I’d prefer there to be more caution in the wind.

 


i Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

ii Lichter, D., & Qian, Z. (2008). Serial cohabitation and the marital life course. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70, 861-878.; Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754-765.

iii Teachman, J. D. (2003). Premarital sex, premarital cohabitation, and the risk of subsequent marital dissolution among women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 444-455.

iv Lichter, D.T., Turner, R.N., Sassler, S. (2010). National estimates of the rise in serial cohabitation. Social Science Research, 39, 754-765.; Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217.  doi: 10.1111/jomf.12083

v Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107-111.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.; Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 377 – 387.

vi Brown, S. L. (2004). Moving from cohabitation to marriage: effects on relationship quality. Social Science Research, 33, 1-20.

vii Vespa, J. (2014). Historical trends in the marital intentions of one-time and serial cohabitors.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 207-217.  doi: 10.1111/jomf.12083

viii Jayson, Shannon, “Cohabiting women having more babies,” USA Today, July 24, 2012; see also this document from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

ix Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 – 358.  doi: 10.1037/a0028316; for evidence that constraints make staying together more likely, regardless of dedication to be together, see Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010).  Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(5), 543-550.

x Sassler, S., Addo, F. R., & Lichter, D. T. (2012).  The tempo of sexual activity and later relationship quality.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 708 – 725. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00996.x; see also Busby, D. M., Carroll, J. S., & Willoughby, B. J. (2010). Compatibility or Restraint? The Effects of Sexual Timing on Marriage Relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(6), 766-774. doi:10.1037/a0021690

xi Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499–509.

xii Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples’ reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233 – 258.

xiii Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2005).  Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 989 – 1002.;  Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.