Living Together Before Marriage

Letter #2

Dear Dr. Harley,

I've often heard that living together before marriage is perilous and that statistics bear that out. My friend is planning to move in with his girlfriend. I told him what I've heard but have not actually seen these statistics. He questioned my stats, imagine that! If it's not too much trouble I would appreciate any hard info on these stats and their sources.

Thanks in advance.


Dear W.K.,

My own numbers (85% failure rate among those who live together before marriage), comes from my own research and extrapolations of studies I've read in the past. Since I have not published any of these, nor do I intend to publish them, I'll direct you to some recent studies done by others.

One study that you may find interesting was done by Bennett, Blan, and Bloom (American Sociological Review, 1988, Vol 53: 127-138) entitled, "Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability."

The point made by the authors is that, overall, the risk of divorce after living together is 80% higher than the risk of divorce after not living together, which is already too high. In other words, those who live together before marriage are almost twice as likely to divorce than those who did not live together. But they also point out that the risk of divorce is even higher if you don't live together more than three years prior to marriage. The longer you live together prior to marriage, the less the risk of divorce until after 8 years of living together, when the risk of divorce is equal to those who have not lived together.

Another interesting study was conducted by Hall and Zhao (Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada, Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1995: 421-427). They write,

The popular belief that cohabitation is an effective strategy in a high-divorce society rests on the common-sense notion that getting to know one another before marrying should improve the quality and stability of marriage. However, in this instance, it is looking more and more as if common sense is a poor guide.

Their study showed that cohabitation itself was shown to account for a higher divorce rate, rather than factors that might have led to cohabitation, such as parental divorce, age at marriage, stepchildren, religion, and other factors. In other words, other factors being equal, you are much more likely to divorce if you live together first.

DeMaris and MacDonald (Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Instability: A Test of the unconventionality Hypothesis, Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1993: 399-407), echo Hall and Zhao. They found that the unconventionality of those who live together does not explain their subsequent struggle when married. There is something about living together first that creates marital problems later. They write:

Despite a widespread public faith in premarital cohabitation as a testing ground for marital incompatibility, research to date indicates that cohabitors' marriages are less satisfactory and more unstable than those of noncohabitors.

Undoubtedly there are some self-selection factors that make people who live together more prone to marital problems later. But the gist of current research is that these factors are not enough to explain the astonishingly huge effect. Simply stated, if you live together before marriage, you will be fighting an uphill battle to save your marriage.

If you like to spend your evenings hidden among the periodicals of your local library, here are some other studies that show how risky it is to live together before marriage:

    Balakrishnan, Rao, et. al., (1987) A hazard model analysis of the covariates of marriage dissolution in Canada. Demography, 24, 395-406.

    Booth and Johnson (1988). Premarital cohabitation and marital success. Journal of Family Issues, 9, 255-272.

    Bumpass and Sweet (1989). National estimates of cohabitation. Demography, 26, 615-625.

    DeMaris and Leslie (1984). Cohabitation with the future spouse: Its influence upon marital satisfaction and communication. Journal of Marriage and the family, 46, 77-84.

    DeMaris and Rao (1992). Premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability in the United States: A reassessment. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 178-190.

    Teachman and Polonko (1990). Cohabitation and marital stability in the United States. Social Forces, 69, 207-220.

    Teachman, Thomas and Paasch (1991). Legal status and the stability of coresidential unions. Demography, 28, 571-486.

    Thompson and Colella, (1992). Cohabitation and marital stability: Quality or commitment? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 259-267.

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