Living Together Before Marriage: More Likely to Divorce?

Oct 30, 2022 | cohabitation, Relationships, Wedding

Things are going well. You’ve been together for a while, you get along well with each other’s families and friends, and you’ve even learned to put up with their annoying habit of laughing maniacally with their headphones in. You’re ready to take the next step in your relationship: you want to move in together. But wait! Your know-it-all mother informs you that couples who live together before getting married are more likely to divorce. She advises you not to do it, concerned that you might be sabotaging your future as a happy couple. You scour the internet for insights and wind up on…this article! Join us on a quest to uncover the truth. Are cohabiting couples inviting marital troubles down the road? Are they preparing themselves well for marriage? Or is there really no correlation at all? We explain all below. 

There have been scores of previous attempts to answer these questions, which means that they are best answered by taking a look at what the best scholars and researchers in social psychology and relationships have to say. There are some competing ideas, but they all possess a kernel of truth, and therefore they all form a part of the patchwork quilt necessary to understand the dynamics at play behind questions surrounding cohabitation and divorce—once and for all. 

Puzzle Piece #1: Conflicting Evidence 

There have been quite a few studies on this exact topic, and some of them are recent. A 2018 study by researchers Rosenfeld & Roesler examining the correlation between premarital cohabitation and divorce found that research participants who lived together prior to getting married were less likely than their peers to file for divorce within the first year of marriage…but they were also more likely to get divorced later on! The successful first year of marriage is probably linked to the fact that these couples were already accustomed to one another’s living habits and had already previously worked out many of the kinks related to sharing space. However, this study doesn’t bode well for the long-term future of those couples, and it implicated early cohabitation as a risk factor for later divorce.

That said, another 2018 study reached the opposite conclusion: that cohabitation before marriage is actually linked to lower divorce rates in the long run. Similarly, a study from 2012 looked at marriages entered into since the mid-1990s. In this case, the authors found that cohabitation prior to marriage did not raise divorce rates. Surprisingly, it actually lowered them in certain circumstances: women going into marriage with higher than average risks of divorce (due to factors like having had a child out of wedlock, having been raised in single-parent or stepparent households, or having had more than the median number of sexual partners) were actually less likely to get divorced later on if they moved in with their partners before getting married. Another study completed in 2014 also indicated that the risks associated with premarital cohabitation had been overstated previously, and there is actually no higher risk of divorce with prior cohabitation than there is without. 

What can we take away from these conflicting conclusions? It’s very difficult to say whether any given couple will be more likely to stay together or get divorced based purely on whether they moved in together prior to getting married. The lack of conclusiveness actually serves as an excellent reminder that there are many factors at play in relationship success.

For example, those studies did not account for things like how skillful the couples in the studies were when it came to addressing conflict, how readily they accepted influence from one another, how financially compatible they were, and how emotionally connected they were. All of these factors and more will vary from cohabitant to cohabitant, making it all the more difficult to link just early cohabitation on its own to higher or lower divorce rates. There are also other factors aside from the dynamics of that particular couple that can also play a pivotal role in determining or speaking to the relationship between cohabitation and divorce–many of which we will explore below.

Puzzle Piece #2: Age of Commitment

Research has indicated that making a serious commitment at a young age often leads to divorce. For example, couples who either moved in together or got married at age 18 ended up divorced 60% of the time. However, couples who either moved in together or got married at age 23 only divorced 30% of the time. Interestingly, the outcome was the same regardless of what kind of serious commitment was made at these ages (cohabitation or marriage). The researchers believe that their findings implicate the age of commitment, rather than the type of commitment, in divorce rates. Part of this puzzle piece is also the fact that couples who move in together and attempt to “act married” tend to do so at a younger age than couples who simply get married directly. 

What does this mean for you? If you’re in your early twenties or under and you’re hoping your relationship will go the distance, we suggest you hold off on moving in together and extend the dating phase for a while longer. You might experiment with spending a few nights per week sleeping over at each other’s places, but there’s a significant chance your relationship will be worse for the wear if you take the leap and move in together too young. Moving in with someone is a serious commitment; doing so at a young age means that both people are less likely to have the maturity and experience to really be able to pick a compatible partner and sustain a long-term relationship. Of course, cohabitation is a hotly debated topic, and results will also vary, couple by couple. 

Puzzle Piece #3: Religiosity 

Whether or not a couple is religious may also influence the early cohabitation/later divorce dynamics. Sociologist Bradford Wilcox found that religious couples (especially those who share the same faith) who get married in their 20s without moving in together first actually have the lowest odds of divorce compared with other groups. Wilcox’s discovery stands in stark contrast to the studies cited above, indicating that religion can change everything. 

One of the reasons behind Wilcox’s finding could be that religious folks have the advantage of having access to a dating pool of singles who are ready to get married and who also share their core values, including a strong focus on family. Successful couples usually share core values. Sharing the same faith means that core values are more likely to be similar by default since they stem from the same worldview. 

Shared faith has also been linked to better relationship quality, sexual fidelity, and a stronger sense of commitment. Religious institutions tend to be not only family-friendly but a supportive pillar in the lives of many families in the USA. 

Research from an adjacent field also backs up the link between religion and successful relationships: Wendell Kramer studied intentional communities or experiments in which people with a shared vision come together to live in community. There are many types of communities: agrarian communities, eco-communities, and more. Most of them fail after a short period of time. However, Kramer found that religious communities, in particular, were consistently more successful and longer-lasting than other types of communities. Love it or hate it, religion certainly does hold people together, from the community level down to the couple level. 

Puzzle Piece #4: Relationship Satisfaction

As you may have figured out by now, the research on early cohabitation and divorce is far from conclusive. Therefore, in order to understand the whole picture, it’s also important to consider what the research says about relationship satisfaction with respect to both cohabitation and marriage. 

A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 showed that married couples are more satisfied in their relationships than unmarried cohabiting couples. They also trusted one another more and felt closer to each other than those who were just living together: 78% of married people reported feeling closer to their partner than to anyone else, whereas only 55% of cohabitants said the same.

In another study, 43% of research participants who had lived together before getting engaged reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction after marriage compared with 16% of research participants who didn’t move in together until after they had gotten engaged. That less satisfied 43% also divorced at higher rates. 

Studies on adjacent topics revealed that cohabitants are more likely than married people to cheat. In fact, cohabitants are twice as likely to cheat compared to married folks, to be exact. Additionally, children of parents who were cohabiting without being married were less stable than the children of married parents and were also 90% more likely to get divorced than the children of married parents. 

Additionally, compared with couples who are merely cohabiting, married couples have also reported higher levels of trust as well as greater satisfaction with:

These findings were backed up by the fact that 58% of the married research participants said things were going “very well” in their marriages, while merely 41% of cohabitants said the same.

Married couples also expressed more trust than their cohabiting peers in a number of areas: they were more trusting that their partners would be honest, faithful, financially responsible, and act in their best interest. Even more strikingly, 78% of married people also said that they felt closer to their partner than to any other adult. Only 55% of cohabitants shared this sentiment

When we see statistics like these, we might falsely assume that the correlations presented in these studies mean that marriage causes trust, closeness, and relationship satisfaction and that cohabitation causes adultery, dissatisfaction, and higher levels of instability. While this all might be true, these study results don’t speak to whether these things are true or not—they only shed light on a correlation. Consider the old adage, “correlation does not equal causation.” It may well be the case that couples who are closer, more satisfied with their relationship, and more trusting of one another are also more likely to get married rather than the other way around. Similarly, it may be that people who are prone to adultery are less likely to get married in the first place, and those unstable families are more likely to decide on cohabitation over marriage. We just don’t know for sure. 

Puzzle Piece #5: Some Findings May Be Outdated

Some of our presuppositions on the topic of cohabitation and divorce are based on research that was done a long time ago, and it may no longer be relevant. 

Starting in about the 1970s, when more and more couples were choosing to live together before marriage, social science researchers began investigating the possible link between early cohabitation and divorce. Back then, the correlation seemed quite clear: living together before marriage was indeed linked to higher divorce rates later on.

The tricky part about this is that the couples cohabiting before marriage in the 70s and 80s were not the same couples who are living together before marriage today. Today, cohabitation is a very common practice; a few decades ago, it was neither as common nor as societally accepted as it is today. Therefore, the couples shacking up without a wedding ring back in the day were likely more rebellious and less conventional than their peers. These characteristics can come with a whole host of relationship dynamics and personality traits that could potentially be linked to divorce. The couples moving in together today, by contrast, are average folks who aren’t any more likely than the next guy to live far outside society’s relationship norms. Therefore, when looking at research on cohabitation and divorce, it might be wise to focus more on recent studies.

Puzzle Piece #6: Sliding Into Marriage

Cohabitation is a pretty big commitment, but many couples simply slide into it without first giving it careful consideration and discussing its implications. Although the commitment that comes with cohabitation is not on the same level as marriage, it involves a greater intertwining of lives than living separately while dating—and that can make it more complicated to break up. Maybe you both pay rent for the apartment. Maybe you’ve bought household items together. Maybe you have a pet together. These and other similar factors all mean that breaking up isn’t as easy as it would have been before you were living together. Because it’s harder to get out of a relationship when you’re cohabiting, some couples end up prolonging relationships past their expiration dates. 

In some cases, these couples also slide into marriage without giving that so much thought, either. Their families may expect them to get married, or they may simply feel that the time for marriage has arrived naturally after being together for so long. They may decide to get engaged without stopping to survey whether the relationship is truly serving them well. These couples could be the ones to report lower relationship satisfaction and also might be more likely to divorce later, which could skew the data and make it appear in some studies as though it is early cohabitation that causes higher divorce rates. In cases like these, it has more to do with these couples getting married by default, even when they perhaps shouldn’t have. Cohabitation may have pushed these couples closer to marriage, but it didn’t cause their divorce. 

This is just another reason to take cohabitation seriously and not do it on a whim, out of convenience, or out of the desire to save money. Like it or not, cohabitation makes a relationship feel more committed. Before you decide to take the plunge and move in together, talk about whether you’re ready for an increased level of commitment and what it means for your future plans together. More specifically, you should also talk about whether you plan on getting married if all goes well. 

There’s a scientific basis for having this talk. A 1996 study shed some light on an interesting correlation between cohabitation and engagement: the results indicated that those who were cohabiting but were not engaged did not have as high-quality relationships as their peers who lived together and did plan to get married. The takeaway here is that couples moving in together are more likely to have good relationships if they move in together with an eye toward marriage.

The Next Steps

When entered mindfully and without rushing, cohabitation can be an amazing way to increase commitment, hone communication and teamwork, and even ready the relationship for engagement and marriage. It’s an important step along the path. For cohabiting couples who eventually get engaged, there’s another crucial step before marriage. It’s one that is frequently overlooked or waved off, but it’s instrumental to the future success of the relationship: the prenup. 

The reason we’re so enthusiastic about prenups is…well, actually, there are many reasons. Prenups don’t only help couples to set up a contingency plan in case of divorce. That is, of course, an important element of a prenuptial agreement, and doing so can protect both partners, equalize power dynamics, and bring some peace of mind. However, aside from these well-known benefits, prenups also help couples to define their financial roles and expectations during marriage as well as establish healthy boundaries between what’s ‘mine,’ what’s ‘yours,’ and what’s ‘ours .’The process of drafting a prenup also opens up communication about a whole range of sticky financial topics that are better-discussed upfront rather than delayed until they cause problems.  

HelloPrenup has devised a new, smarter way for couples to tackle their prenuptial agreements without spending hours in attorney’s offices, spending down their savings accounts, and going gray in the process. Our interactive platform guides you through the process of drafting your own prenup and offers a more affordable and less stressful solution in the process. 

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You are writing your life story. Get on the same page with a prenup. For love that lasts a lifetime, preparation is key. Safeguard your shared tomorrows, starting today.
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