Does Living Together Before Marriage Increase the Risk of Divorce?
February 25, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller
When I was in graduate school studying the psychology of romantic relationships, I learned about something called “the cohabitation effect.” This was the term scientists were using to describe the increased risk of divorce that accompanies living together before marriage. At the time, several studies had been published supporting this idea.
Recent research has challenged it, though.
In a 2012 study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers examined the link between premarital cohabitation and divorce using a large sample of nearly 3,500 Americans. Specifically, they focused on separation/divorce from a first marriage among adults aged 15-44.
More than half of the participants (63%) had cohabitated prior to marriage and, overall (i.e., regardless of cohabitation status), about one-fifth of participants ended their marriages.
Contrary to previous research, there was absolutely no association between living together before marriage and likelihood of later divorce.
So why did earlier studies come to different conclusions? The authors of this study argue that it’s a function of cohabitation simply becoming more widespread (i.e., as more people live together before marriage, any effect it might have on divorce risk is simply getting weaker and weaker).
That’s certainly one possibility; however, other scientists have claimed that the original studies failed to take into account the fact that, on average, cohabitors tend to move in together at a younger age and that this—not premarital cohabitation itself—is what explained the higher divorce risk they were finding.
This idea was supported in a 2014 study also published in The Journal of Marriage and Family. Essentially, what this study found was that when you compare people’s divorce risk based on the age at which they started “acting married” instead of the age at which they actually become legally married, the “cohabitation effect” largely disappears.
It seems that what’s going on here is that age—not cohabitation—is the real risk factor for divorce, such that couples who move in together or get married at a very young age have the highest risk of later separation.
In short, the current consensus is that cohabitation probably isn’t a danger or threat to marriage after all.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >