The age at which a couple begin cohabitation, not the cohabitation itself, is the most important consideration determining the success or failure of a subsequent marriage, according to Arielle Kuperberg, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“It turns out that cohabitation doesn’t cause divorce and probably never did,” says Kuperberg, who says that the important characteristic is not whether people lived together first, but how old they were when they decided to share a front door. “What leads to divorce is when people move in with someone – with or without a marriage license – before they have the maturity and experience to choose compatible partners and to conduct themselves in ways that can sustain a long-term relationship.”
For more than 20 years, researchers argued that premarital cohabitation is associated with an elevated risk of divorce. Yet these findings have failed to deter young people from playing house together. According to a briefing report presented to the Council on Contemporary Families, cohabitation has increased by more than 900 percent in the past 50 years.
Dr. Kuperberg says, “Today 70 percent of women aged 30 to 34 have cohabited with a male partner, and two-thirds of new marriages take place between couples who have already lived together for an average of 31 months.”
In “Does Premarital Cohabitation Increase Your Risk for Divorce?” Dr. Kuperberg sees no need for panic. Her new research finds that previous studies have over-stated the divorce risk from premarital cohabitation by ignoring how old the individuals are when they move in together. It turns out that the age when people move in together is a much more important factor than whether or not they have taken out a marriage license.
On average, she reports, cohabitors begin living together at an earlier age than marrying couples, but “when couples are compared by the age at which they move in together and start taking on the roles associated with marriage, there is no difference in divorce rates between couples that lived together before marriage and those that didn’t.”
Kuperberg states that premarital cohabitation has very little, if any, impact on a couple’s chance of divorce. Rather, “early entry into marriage or cohabitation, especially prior to age 23, is the critical risk factor.”
Kuperberg says it’s unwise to either move in or get married before the age of 23. But other family experts say that’s lowballing it. Economist Evelyn Lehrer of the University of Illinois-Chicago says the longer people wait past 23, the more likely a marriage is to stick. In fact, Lehrer’s analysis of longitudinal data shows that for every year a woman waits to get married, right up until her early 30s, she reduces her chances of divorce. It’s possible that woman may also be reducing her chances of marriage, but Lehrer’s research suggests later marriages, while less conventional, may be more vital.
One of the reasons cohabitation is linked with divorce in prior years is that poorer people tended to move in together and then slide into marriage when the woman became pregnant, but their economic plight did not improve. So it might not have been the cohabitation, but the poverty that was causing the split; wealthier people tend to wait.
The situation today has changed—70% of all women aged 30 to 34 have lived with a boyfriend, according to Kuperberg, and many of them are educated and wealthy. Sharon Sassler, a professor at Cornell who’s writing a book on cohabitation, says that the amount of time a couple dates before moving in together is important. College educated women date guys for an average of 14 months before they become roomies. For non-college educated women, the waiting time is more like six months, because the lure of a single rent check is just too irresistible. Obviously, that situation is more prone to problems.
The biggest predictor of splits in couples of all types, though, is whether they have a child without meaning to. Sociologist Kristi Williams of Ohio State University says that sometimes an unintended pregnancy is what pushes a couple to move in together or to marry. “Given that premarital sex has been nearly universal in the U.S. for more than 40 years,” she wrote in a response to Kuperberg’s study, “it is vital to provide teens and young adults with access to effective contraceptives and family planning services” to avert more divorces.
In other research, researchers at the University of Miami in Coral Gables found that there might be physical traits at work. Not surprisingly, more attractive people were more likely to get married than less attractive people, but not by much, and mostly that rule only applied to women. The paper also found, for what it’s worth, that cohabitation was likely to lead to marriage for women with “above average grooming” and men with “above average personalities.” Good-looking men—such as George Clooney — were more likely to cohabit without getting married.
Cohabitation doesn’t seem to be able to produce that feeling of security. And so far, cohabitation hasn’t been shown to inoculate couples from divorce. But it may not be the marriage slayer it was once thought to be.