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The Potential Perils of Premarital Cohabitation and How to Avoid Them

Why are couples who cohabitate more likely to divorce?

According to the U.S Census, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. With such a high rate of divorce, a bit of skepticism and concern about entering into matrimonial bonds is appropriate. Premarital cohabitation allows couples to experience a “trial marriage” before making the real commitment. Cohabitation is increasingly becoming a natural part of the courtship ritual, a transition from dating to marriage. Indeed, according to a recent talk I attended, two thirds of American will cohabitate with a relationship partner, and one half of marriages emerge from cohabitation. Following common sense, it would seem that those who cohabitate before marriage would be more prepared for and confident about marriage having already lived together. This preparedness and confidence should thus lead to lower divorce rates for those who cohabitated before marriage than those who did not cohabitate. Research has shown, however, that in this case common sense is wrong. Premarital cohabitation actually appears to lead to higher divorce rates in many Western countries. Why might this be?

Is it just a difference of religiosity? My first thought when stumbling upon this little statistic was, “That can’t be right! It must just be due to religious differences.” People who are more religious are less likely to engage in cohabitation and they also are less likely to divorce. However, a review of the literature quickly dispelled this belief. Many studies showed that even when taking into account religiosity, people who cohabitated were more likely to divorce than those who didn’t cohabitate prior to marriage.

If it isn’t just a difference between those who are more or less religious, than what else could driving this effect? The answer appears to be commitment. Couples who are already engaged to be married when they move in together do not experience the same detrimental effects as those who become engaged after they cohabitate. They have better communication skills, fewer negative interactions, higher relationship quality, and more confidence in their marriage post-wedding.

So what is going on with those couples who cohabitate prior to engagement? Rather than entering into cohabitation after having already decided they want to spend their lives together, some of them are sliding into their marriages. In other words, some couples who would not (and should not) have gotten married otherwise do so because they were living together. Scholars term this “relationship inertia.” Simply enough, it is harder to end a relationship when you are living with your partner. The threat of having to separate belongings may be enough to keep some couples together! Thus, some couples may find themselves on a path toward marriage because it seems more palatable than the alternative.

Cohabitation also represents a potential “sunk cost.” Each additional investment into the relationship makes it that much harder to end the relationship. People may have a harder time cutting their losses when they think about all the time, energy, and money they put into the relationship, even cutting their losses will save them more heartache in the future.

Couples who live together are also more likely to spend time together, giving them less opportunity to meet other potential partners. This effectively cuts down on the possibility that one or both partners will find someone else they are more compatible with.

Gender also plays a role. Women are more likely to see cohabitation as a pre-cursor to marriage, where men who cohabitate prior to engagement are less likely to have this long-term view of cohabitation and are less dedicated to their partners. Women may eventually propel their less-dedicated partners into rockier marriages.

The bottom line: Premarital cohabitation is thought to be a practical and smart choice for a majority of people today. In one survey 61 percent of young adults reported that pre-marital cohabitation improves a person’s chance at marriage (Kline, et al. 2002). Given this positive view of cohabitation, and the vast number of couples who choose to cohabitate, is there a way to avoid the costs of cohabitation? Every relationship is different, but this vast literature seems to boil down into a clear suggestion — don’t cohabitate until you and your partner are both sure that you are invested in the future of the relationship. If you do choose to cohabitate as a “trial marriage,” keep checking in with each other about your feelings towards the relationship and your long term goals and put contingency plans in place for getting out of the relationship if it isn’t right for you — don’t simply slide into a marriage you aren’t sure about because it seems like the time is right.

Have you or anyone you know experienced the slide into marriage? Do you have other ideas for why cohabitation might hurt marital quality?

Further Reading:

Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311–318.

Stanley, S. M., Kline Rhoades, G., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect Family Relations, 55, 499-509 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00418.x