Living together and divorcing: a connection?

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H/T to JK for tipping me to this article in the New York Times Sunday Review: The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage.  (By Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now.)

This piece includes points I often raise with cohabiting couples when I prepare them for marriage.  But by the time an engaged couple appears in the parish office, such conversations may be too late.  But you, dear reader, may know some young men and women to whom you can pass on this helpful and compelling information.

At 32, one of my clients (I’ll call her Jennifer) had a lavish wine-country wedding. By then, Jennifer and her boyfriend had lived together for more than four years. The event was attended by the couple’s friends, families and two dogs.

When Jennifer started therapy with me less than a year later, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married,” she sobbed. Most disheartening to Jennifer was that she’d tried to do everything right. “My parents got married young so, of course, they got divorced. We lived together! How did this happen?” 

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis. 

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce. 

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect. 

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself. 

As Jennifer and I worked to answer her question, “How did this happen?” we talked about how she and her boyfriend went from dating to cohabiting. Her response was consistent with studies reporting that most couples say it “just happened.” 

“We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.” 

She was talking about what researchers call “sliding, not deciding.” Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean. 

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse. 


I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage. 

Read the whole article here.


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  1. Let me preface this comment with the statement that my wife and I did not live together prior to being married.

    That said, I think there is a rather significant flaw in the statistics of the study, which is unless there a way "somehow" provide analysis of the number of people who cohabited before they were married but who broke up before getting married, there's a fundamental flaw in the numbers. I could certainly argue that had they not lived together but went straight to marriage they would have divorced and, thus, the number of separations for non-married couples would be higher.

    Now with that out of the way, I firmly believe that deferring living together before marriage creates a loss of experience. For me, the symbolism of truly starting a life together after the wedding service is important. Kathy and I were a couple before that but really became something more after the exchange of vows and I think that may get blurred if you are living together before marriage.

    Just my $.02.

  2. I work with a lot of teens and young adults who live together and then decide to get married. Many of these relationships do fail but I see that failure having more to do with age, maturity, and the acceptance of divorce as being an "easy out." These studies, as listed above, are comparing a generation where divorce was unacceptable and a new generation that sees marriage as a temporary commitment. Many young adults I work with have said, "I'm in love but if something happens later on we can always seperate." The sanctuary of marriage has been lost and, in my opinion, is the biggest factor to the divorce rate increase with couples that live together before making this commitment. These studies need to look at these variables before claiming cohabitating leads to higher divorce rates. Its also interesting that so many people who believe its a sin to live together before marriage would want to believe these studies before looking at how these stats are being collected.


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