Living Together Before Marriage Doesn't Doom Relationships After All

When I was a graduate student studying the psychology of romantic relationships, I remember learning about “the cohabitation effect” in a few of my courses. Relationship scientists coined this term to describe the increased risk of divorce that seemed to accompany living together before marriage. At the time, several studies had been published in major journals supporting this idea.

Interestingly, however, recent studies suggest that “the cohabitation effect” is a thing of the past—and may have never even existed at all.

Consider this: in a 2012 study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers examined the association between premarital cohabitation and divorce in a large sample of nearly 3,500 Americans. In particular, they focused on separation/divorce from a first marriage among adults aged 15-44.

More than half of the participants (63%) reported cohabitating prior to getting married. Also, regardless of cohabitation status, approximately one-fifth of participants had ended their marriages.

The results of this study challenged the concept of the cohabitation effect: there was no association between living together before marriage and likelihood of divorce.

So why might earlier studies have yielded different conclusions? The authors of this study suggest that it may be a function of cohabitation simply becoming more widespread. In other words, as more and more people live together before marriage, any effect of cohabitation on divorce risk is likely to get weaker.

However, another possibility is that the earlier studies failed to take into account the fact that, on average, people who cohabitate tend to move in together at a younger age. So maybe it’s age—not premarital cohabitation—that explains the higher divorce risk.

This idea was supported in a 2014 study, which also happened to be published in The Journal of Marriage and Family. What this study revealed was that when you compare people’s divorce risk based on the age at which they began “acting married” instead of the age at which they actually got legally married, the “cohabitation effect” largely disappears.

In short, it seems that what’s going on here is that age—not cohabitation—is the true risk factor for divorce, meaning that couples who move in together or get married at a very young age have the highest risk of later separation.

What all of this tells us is that cohabitation probably isn’t a the danger or threat to marriage that it was long assumed to be.

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Image Source: 123RF/Maksym Poriechkin

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