a man and a woman sitting on a couch

As many as 50% of first marriages end in divorce in the United States. Faced with such high prospects for failure, it seems logical for couples to live together before marriage in order to learn whether they weather life’s ups and downs well in marriage-like conditions.

Whether motivated by this line of reasoning or not, the share of unmarried American couples living together is on the rise — from half a million couples in the sixties to some 7.5 million today. So how are they faring? Does data show that living together before marriage leads to better outcomes?

For a long time, the answer seemed to be no. As researchers started asking the question in the 1970s, back when “shacking up” started to become more common, they found that couples that lived together had higher divorce rates and lower levels of marriage satisfaction. The idea that living together was bad for marriage prospects became fairly accepted. (Christian groups enjoyed citing the statistics.) In 1987, researchers studying Swedish women — under the premise that Sweden predicts social trends in the U.S. by 10-15 years — found divorce rates 80% higher among women who cohabited before marriage than the norm, suggesting a negative trend on the rise. The New York Times reported that “Divorce may be the price of living together first.”

Last year, an op-ed in the Times described the “cohabitation effect”: how living together before marriage can lead to increased risk of divorce or low marital satisfaction. Yet other publications noted on the question: “Cohabitation before marriage? It’s no greater divorce risk.” So what gives?

It seems it’s no coincidence that the answer changed with the growing acceptability of unmarried couples living together. As sociologist Jay Teachman told the USA Today:

“The nature of cohabitation has changed. Cohabitors 20 years ago were the rule breakers, the rebels, the risk takers — the folks who were perhaps not as interested in marriage, and using cohabitation as an alternative to marriage.”

Since couples that had lived together before marriage in the seventies and eighties were a small minority willing to disregard social norms, what researchers often took as evidence of the negative effects of cohabitation may have only indicated that those who lived together before marriage were less inclined than their more conservative peers to stick out an unhappy marriage. 

The social acceptance of unmarried cohabitation — as opposed to the moral condescension toward hippies “shacking up” — also seems to have lessened the misinterpretation of findings by the public. The aforementioned article in the 1987 New York Times ran a correction noting that its article “went beyond the conclusions of the authors of the report.” One of the researchers stressed, “’What we are saying is that it appears that people who cohabit premaritally are less committed to the institution and are more inclined to divorce than people who don’t live together.”

Today’s studies suggest that couples’ attitudes are more important than the binary decision of whether or not to live together. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that married women who had lived with their spouse before getting engaged or married subsequently divorced at a rate 7% higher than those who did not. However, research out of Cornell found that it was “serial cohabitors” who had higher incidence of divorce, whereas women who married the only boyfriend they ever lived with had a 28% lower rate of divorce. In the Times, a marital therapist warned of poor results for couples who make the decision to live together casually or for financial reasons as they “slide” into marriage rather than “decide” to get married. After all, once a couple is living together, it’s inconvenient to move out, marriage seems like the default, and friends and family expect to see them tie the knot. 

It would be nice to be able to look at the data and get an answer about whether living together is the right decision. But as with the decision of who to marry, certainty is elusive.

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