Does Living Together Build a Stronger Marriage?

unhappy couple at kitchen table
iStock/EllenaZ

Cohabitation — living together outside of marriage — has become more popular over the last six decades. Since 1960, the number of cohabiting couples has increased nearly twentyfold in the U.S. The last two decades have seen explosive growth, with the percentage of cohabiting couples increasing about 50 percent since the mid 1990s and more than doubling in real numbers over these years. Today more than 60 percent of marriages are formed by people who have cohabited with their spouse or someone else at some time in their lives.

A majority of people mistakenly believe that living together is an effective way to test a potential marriage to determine if the couple is compatible. But is cohabitation really a smart move for couples interested in a healthy, lasting marriage? Does it serve as a good testing ground? Does it help build stronger, healthier relationships?

The great news is that we don't have to wonder about the answers to these important questions. A wealth of strong social science research from the world's leading universities has been answering these questions for many decades now, and the findings are conclusive. This research allows us to learn from the experience of millions of people who have lived together outside of marriage. Let's address some of the most important questions people are asking about cohabitation.

Aren't marriage and cohabitation essentially the same thing, a man and woman simply making a life a together?

Researchers tell us cohabitation is nothing like marriage. They are very different kinds of relationships. In fact, researchers find that the behavior of cohabitants tends to mimic that of single people in how they live and how they navigate relationships. Eminent sociologist James Q. Wilson explains, "Scholars increasingly regard cohabitation as a substitute to being single, not an alternative to marriage." Put simply, couples who live together don't act like married people.

What most people don't realize is that the difference in commitment between the two types of relationships creates important, measurable differences. Even when couples are similar in socio-economic indicators, cohabitants — compared with their married peers — tend to have:

  • Less healthy, more volatile relationships.
  • Breakup rates five times higher.
  • Two to five times higher levels of serious physical violence and emotional abuse.
  • A decreased sense of ongoing happiness and fairness in their relationships.
  • Two to eight times higher levels of sexual infidelity.
  • Less equitable sharing of finances.
  • Much higher rates of risk-taking behaviors such as dangerous driving and drug and alcohol abuse.

In addition, men in cohabiting relationships are less likely to help out with housework.

Isn't living together a smart test-drive for marriage?

You wouldn't buy a car without driving it first, would you? Then why would you marry someone without seeing how well you might live together first? That seems reasonable on the surface, but the answer is certainly not what people expect.

Seldom have social scientists come to a more definitive and consistent conclusion than that cohabitation is intimately linked to greater likelihood of divorce. Those who marry with cohabiting experience in their past can have a 50 to 80 percent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited.

In fact, the most consistent consequence that shows up in the studies is the link between premarital cohabitation and dramatically increased risk of divorce. This is just as true for couples cohabiting in the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s as it was of couples cohabiting in the ’60s and ’70s. (Some people have suggested that cohabiting couples have greater difficulties in their relationships due to cultural stigma. This is not a factor because there is virtually no stigma attached to living together today.)

One study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family looked at a large number of studies on cohabitation and later marital success and concluded: "Despite popular belief, cohabitation is generally associated with negative outcomes both in terms of marital quality and marital stability."

Is "test-driving" a potential marriage smart? Two leading cohabitation scholars at the University of Denver summarized the matter succinctly: "The belief that cohabiting prior to marriage lowers one's odds of divorce has no evidence going for it, yet it is a strongly held belief."

Isn't cohabitation more equitable, giving women more influence and freedom than marriage?

While marriage benefits both men and women in generally equal terms, my book The Ring Makes All the Difference was one of the first sources to demonstrate how and why cohabitation tends to harm women more deeply than it harms men. A married woman is a much stronger and more influential player in her relationship than is a live-in girlfriend. Let's look at just a few of the reasons.

False hope: Regardless of racial, ethnic or socio-economic status, women are consistently more likely than men to believe their cohabiting relationship is moving toward marriage. The guys are more likely to be just having fun, and they're happy to keep it that way. This means women are the ones hoping for something that is not likely to happen.

Unequal commitment: Research finds that cohabiting men tend to be less committed to the relationship before and after the wedding than women are. This is less true for men who never cohabit.

The University of Denver scholars we just heard from warn, "Women may be at a disadvantage in terms of relational power because they are the ones that are more committed." They also explain, "Men who premaritally cohabited with their wives, were on average, a good deal less dedicated to their wives even once they are married!" (emphasis in original).

Ladies, if you're looking for a less-committed husband, living with him before marriage is one of your best bets for achieving that goal.

More power for him: But even though the man has less commitment to the relationship and less interest in marriage, he's the one who has "more power to determine whether the relationship ends in marriage" explain researchers from Bowling Green University, in Bowling Green, Ohio. The woman is left only to hope an engagement ring arrives one day.

So, living with someone before marriage is an extremely efficient way to significantly increase the likelihood of getting a spouse who:

  • Is less committed to your marriage.
  • Displays more unhealthy problem-solving skills.
  • Is more likely to be unfaithful to you.
  • Is less likely to be practically and emotionally supportive of you.
  • Is more relationally negative overall.
  • Has violent behavior toward you.
  • Is less fair in sharing housework.

But if you want to avoid these and have a happier, more stable marriage, you certainly want to reject cohabitation.

Glenn T. Stanton is director of Global Family Formation studies at Focus on the Family.

Research note:From time to time, studies come out that are widely reported in the press indicating that findings like those presented in this article are no longer true. There is something important to consider as you read such stories. The mainstream conclusion in a particular field of study, such as whether eating eggs or drinking wine is good for you, is not determined by what the latest study finds. It is determined by the overall findings that consistently appear in the research literature over decades, as well as what the leading scholars in the field themselves are finding. This article reports the findings of the latter on cohabitation.

© 2018 Focus on the Family.

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