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The Urge to Merge: Is Living Together Before Marriage a Good Idea?

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To today’s couples starting out, it seems like common sense: instead of jumping blindly into a lifetime commitment, why not test the waters first and make sure that you can live together before marriage peacefully? No one wants to find out after marriage that her husband’s refusal to do laundry is just too much to bear. Most people from Generation X and younger agree that it’s important to try things out in order to make stronger marriages, but many troubling studies have found that living together before marriage actually increases the odds that a couple will divorce. New research culled from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, however, disputes those findings. Cohabitation may not be the demon it’s made out to be, but it still doesn’t provide the assurance that many believe it does. 

Commitment Versus Convenience
Data from numerous studies shows that people who live together before they get married have a slightly higher chance of getting divorced than couples who don’t move into a shared home until after they get engaged or married. The National Marriage Project also found that married couples who cohabited before their vows also tend to have more marital problems and report being less happy in their marriages. Although conservative and religious organizations may try to scare young people by claiming statistics like “four out of five cohabiting couples eventually divorce,” the reality is far more benign. The 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found that among men married for ten years, 71 percent of the noncohabiters were still married, while only 69 percent of the cohabiters were—a difference of only 2 percent.   

Studies on premarital living arrangements are controversial because researchers haven’t verified whether cohabitation itself causes the uptick in divorce, or whether people who don’t live together are already less likely to divorce. Couples that don’t are far more likely to be religious, be socially conservative, or come from cultures where divorce is frowned upon, all of which lessen the likelihood of divorce. Many demographers believe that these characteristics are what lead to marital stability, not just the fact that they didn’t live together. 

However, there’s also evidence that cohabitation itself is not good for some relationships. According to the author of a study at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, living together before marriage is something that, for many couples, “just sort of happens.” The author, Dr. Scott Stanley, believes that some couples end up living together out of convenience, without a clear vision of their future. People may think that it will be easy to get out of the relationship, but once finances are mingled and lives are combined, couples in a less-than-stellar relationship are less likely to break up, because of the hassle involved. They’re likely to slide into marriage the same way they slid into cohabitation. “Some people get trapped by that,” Dr. Stanley told the Washington Post. “Cohabitation may not be making some relationships more risky,” he said. “What it may be doing is making some risky relationships more likely to continue.” 

Real Couples, Real Risks
This theory aligns with studies showing that there’s no difference between couples who move in together after their wedding and those who move in together after engagement. There’s also no increased risk for couples who decide to live together with a clear plan for a shared future. The couples that show an increased risk of divorce are those who decide to move in together purely for reasons of financial benefit or convenience, or because one partner wants the relationship to progress faster. 

Cohabitation may not significantly raise the divorce risk for most couples, but it does have its risks. A study at Cornell University found that the divorce rate for women who live with someone more than once is more than twice as high as it is for women who live exclusively with their future husbands. Multiple studies have also found that when women with children cohabit between marriages, their risk of divorce increases. Interestingly, men who have children and live with someone don’t experience the same risk. The 2002 National Survey of Family Growth even found that women who lived only with their eventual husbands had lower divorce rates than women who cohabited multiple times, and even lower divorce rates than those who had never lived with anyone. 

Living with someone before marriage may have some slightly elevated risks, but there are several marriage situations that are far more risky. According to an Australian study:

  • Couples on their second or third marriages are 90 percent more likely to divorce than couples in which both parties are in their first marriage.
  • Couples in which one or both parties have children before the marriage are twice as likely to divorce as couples without children.
  • Couples are more likely to get divorced if the husband is unemployed.
  • Couples in which the husband is nine or more years older than the wife are twice as likely to divorce, as are husbands who get married before age twenty-five.
  • Couples whose parents are divorced are more likely to get divorced themselves.
  • Couples who marry before age twenty are two to three times more likely to divorce. 

The facts say that living with someone before marriage may not spell disaster, but that’s still no reason to enter into it lightly. Deciding to live together is a big step, not one that should be undertaken to save on rent and make commuting more convenient. The national rate of divorce may be about 50 percent, but that doesn’t mean all marriages are a coin toss. Some marriages have a 90 percent chance of success, while some marriages are doomed to fail. As long as you’re shacking up with a clear goal in mind for your relationship, you’re probably on the right path.

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