Is Cohabitation Still a Divorce Risk?

A lot has changed. Has cohabitation's link to divorce changed as well?

Posted Jan 27, 2021

In the 1970s, only a tiny fraction of the U.S. population—less than half a percentage (0.2%)—lived as cohabitating romantic partners at any given time. Today, that number is about 15% in the 18-34 age bracket (Gurrentz, 2018). Putting this into context, nearly two-thirds of women today (64%) have cohabitated at some point (Hemez & Manning, 2017), with some evidence suggesting the total is as high as 70% (Rosenfeld & Roesler, 2019). These numbers are more than double what they were in 1987. In other words, what once was an extraordinarily rare living arrangement for a dating couple is now commonplace.

When the rate of cohabitation began to climb, researchers examined its pros/cons by looking at its potential effect on subsequent marriage stability. Not everyone who cohabitates plans to marry, but many do, and those who do sometimes use it as a "trial" period before they fully commit to marriage. The idea of a "trial" suggests that cohabitation could increase marital stability: Those whose trials were successful continue, those whose trials did not work avoid divorce; they simply break-up. So, maybe cohabitation reduces the risk of divorce.

Early Research Linked Cohabitation and Divorce

The preponderance of evidence from the 1980s showed the opposite: Cohabitation was associated with increased divorce risk (e.g., Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988). This robust finding has emerged again and again, making cohabitation a true puzzle. But this was also a time when the path towards marriage was socially normed differently than it is today. Cultural guidelines proscribed living apart, dating, getting married, then moving in together. Perhaps the way we think about and progress towards marriage today has altered this link.

New evidence shows that emerging adults today may have different ideas about what cohabitation means for couples (Bagley et al., 2019). They tend to believe that cohabitation prior to marriage protects against divorce, and is a smart "trial" run. (This belief is not as strongly held among older adults.) Their belief that cohabitation helps marital stability may reflect a growing change in how people move from single to married.

Is Cohabitation Still a Divorce Risk?

Despite changing norms and perceptions, premarital cohabitation still appears to be a risk factor for divorce (Rosenfeld & Roesler, 2019). This does not mean that every couple that lives together prior to marriage later divorces; nor does it suggest that not living together first guarantees stability. It simply looks at the group data at large and shows a trend between living together prior to marriage and subsequent separations. Across all years examined in this study, the odds of divorce were 1.31 times higher for women who cohabitated prior to marriage.

Cohabitation may confer "short-term benefits" in the sense that divorce risk is lower for these couples right after the wedding (within the first 6 months) and slightly lower in the subsequent 6 months. During that initial year, couples that did not live together first are at higher risk for divorce. Maybe cohabitators have less of an abrupt transition after marriage, and this gives them an initial advantage. However, the tide turns after that first year, and people who cohabitated before marriage end up having elevated risk relative to those who did not.

Normal, but Still a Risk Factor

There's no doubt that American culture views cohabitation differently now than it did 50 years ago, and that cohabitation is on the rise. This rise may reflect changes in stigma towards premarital sex, delays in the age of first marriage, and high housing expenses that make cohabitation a good financial decision. As much as cohabitation is now normative, it remains a risk factor for divorce. (See potential reasons why, including the inertial effect, here.)

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Bagley, L. A., Kimberly, C., Marino, A., Clark, P., & Pomeroy, C. (2019). Beliefs About premarital cohabitation: Do individuals believe living together helps divorce-proof marriage?. Contemporary Family Therapy, 1-7.

Bennett, N. G., Blanc, A. K., & Bloom, D. E. (1988). Commitment and the modern union: Assessing the link between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability. American Sociological Review, 127-138.

Gurrentz, B. (2018). Cohabitation is Down for Young Adults. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/11/cohabitaiton-is-up-marriage-is-down-for-young-adults.html

Hemez, P., & Manning, W. D. (2017). Over twenty-five years of change in cohabitation experience in the US, 1987-2013. Family Profiles.

Rosenfeld, M. J., & Roesler, K. (2019). Cohabitation experience and cohabitation's association with marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81, 42– 58