Living Together is No Guarantee

Right after the myth of second marriages comes the myth of cohabitation; that is that living together (playing house) before getting married provides a better chance of staying married. That seems to make sense. The man and woman get to know each other before they become husband and wife. Living together before marriage means fewer surprises for the couple later when they tie the knot. Some analogize cohabitation more prosaically: no one buys a pair of shoes without trying them on first.

This idea, which has become very popular, appeals to common sense, and couples that at one time might have married now live together in informal and fluid cohabitation. While many couples eventually marry, many do not, and thus it is difficult to keep track of cohabitation relationships. Some couples cohabit for practical reasons and do not foresee marriage.

No one can doubt the surge in the number of cohabitating couples. Between 1960 and 1998, the number of unmarried, cohabiting couples increased from 439,000 to 4.2 million – a tenfold increase, and greater than the rates of marriage and divorce. These informal unions come into existence and dissolve much more easily than marriages and divorces. The formation and dissolutions increase the fluidity in American life. About half of the couples that first cohabited eventually marry, however.

A number of studies strongly suggest that those who live together before marriage have higher separation and divorce rates than those who do not. The National Survey of Families and Households indicates that “unions begun by cohabitation are almost twice as likely to dissolve within 10 years compared with all first marriages: 57 percent to 30 percent.” One study suggest that living in a non-marital union “has a direct negative impact on subsequent marital stability” perhaps because living in such a union “undermines the legitimacy of formal marriage’ and so reduces the commitment of marriage.”

Of couples whose cohabitation ends without marriage, one writer suggests that those who cohabit “drift from one partner to another in search of the right person.” So a caveat is in order. Evidence suggests “when cohabitation is limited to a person’s future spouse, there is no elevated risk of divorce.”

Marriage is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, so perhaps cohabitation adds the part without producing the whole.

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