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Cohabitation: The Relationship Death Knell? I Think Not

March 28, 2010

There is no question that relationship landscapes have changed drastically in the past few decades. Now, more than ever before unmarried couples are living together first, before tying the knot. While this used to be frowned upon (the whole “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” business), and past research led us to believe that the rates of divorce were drastically higher for those who lived together before they were wed, new findings suggest something different. A report release earlier this month by the CDC and the National Center for Health Statistics finds that, based on the National Survey of Family Growth, there is not a significantly greater difference in divorce rates between couples who lived together before exchanging vows, and those who didn’t. 13,000 men and women were  surveyed and of those who had been married for over a decade, 60% of women and 62% of men had cohabitated before marriage, and 61% of women and 63% of men had lived with only their current spouse. On the other hand, 66% of women and 69% of men married for 10 or more years never lived with a partner. In an story from USA Today, Sociologist Pamela Smock from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said that on the basis of those numbers, pre-marital cohabitation has no negative effect on the possible future of the marriage.

The 6% difference between couples that lived together and those who didn’t is more likely linked to other factors than just the fact that they cohabited. There are multiple web-sites set up by conservative groups dedicated to alerting the public to the “dangers” of living together before marriage, such as Mike McManus’ Marriage Savers ministry.  Personally, however, I don’t really think having a piece of paper and a religious deity giving you the “go-ahead” to share an address (and – GASP – a bed) really makes that big of a difference. If it’s right, the relationship will work out regardless. What seems to be more of a factor is a couples intentions. Those who moved in after getting engaged, i.e. they intended to spend the rest of their lives together, had no difference in divorce likelihood at all. Those who just started living together with no communication about the future or ideas about where they would like the relationship to end up, had a higher risk of ending in divorce.

Another thing to think about when it comes to people and statistics is that it’s really hard to get perfectly accurate findings because, in most experiments, researchers don’t have complete control over the variables. To get the most accurate findings about a question like “Does living together before marriage make divorce more likely?” you would ideally have to have couples who are exactly alike in all other variables except cohabitation, however that is obviously impossible seeing as how all couples are different. This can lead to there being other variables that are the causation of a marriage working or not working, other than cohabitation. For example, those who choose not to live together before marriage may have religious views which frown upon that circumstance. Those with these religious view would also probably be more against divorce and therefore religion is a third variable not factored in. My bottom line is this: The 6% higher divorce rate for those living together before marriage suggests a correlation, however it  does not necessarily show causation.

With the housing markets and economy in the gutter, living together and sharing rent/bills rather than commuting back and forth and wasting time and gas is just smart. Obviously it’s not something to jump into right away, living together should be treated like the next stop on the route towards marriage (or for those opposed to the whole marriage thing at least a life-long commitment). If you’re having doubts about the relationship’s future, living together will surely not fix any problems. In fact, it will probably create more. But, if you’re sure they’re “the one,” and living together seems the logical next-step, a marriage license is not a necessity.

With Love,

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