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Report: ‘Living together’ first may increase odds for divorce

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Much like test driving a car, an increasing number of couples today say they want to “test drive” their relationship by living together before marriage. What they don’t know, a new report says, is that they may be dooming the relationship from the start and increasing their chances for divorce if they eventually do marry.

The “State of our Unions” report, released annually by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, says that more people are cohabitating today than ever before. There were 5 million cohabitating couples in 2004, compared to 2.8 million in 1990, 1.5 million in 1980 and only 523,000 in 1970.

Although more than half of all first-time marriages today begin with a live-in relationship, the report says, such arrangements can be detrimental to a marriage. The report was released in mid-July.

“The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way ‘to find out whether you really get along,’ and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief,” the study’s authors, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, write. “In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.”

Bill Maier, Focus on the Family’s vice president and psychologist in residence, said the report should be no surprise to those in the pro-family movement.

“The average young person in America who enters into a cohabitating relationship isn’t aware that they may be sabotaging their chances for eventual marital success,” Maier told Baptist Press. “… Study after study after study shows us that cohabitating is a bad idea.”

Two factors, Maier said, have contributed to the rise in cohabitation. First, an increasing number of Americans lack any religious commitment. According to the National Marriage Project study, those who are “less religious” are more likely to live together. Second, Maier said, an entire “generation of young people” have grown up in a culture rampant with divorce.

“Therefore, they’re gun-shy. They’re skittish. They don’t want to make the same mistake that their parents made,” Maier said.

But why do cohabitating relationships often doom the marriage from the get-go? At least three theories exist:

— The relationship itself lacks commitment.

“Often on the part of the man there is a tendency to have his cake and eat it, too,” Maier said. “The woman is hoping that the man ultimately will commit to marriage. The man, in his heart, may have no intention to get married.”

That lack of commitment often carries over into the marriage.

Scott Stanley, a psychologist at the University of Denver, believes that women tend to “over-interpret” the meaning of living together. Men, he said, are often not thinking about marriage.

“Such a disconnect puts women at greatly increased risks for adverse outcomes, especially if a child results from the union — which has become increasingly common,” Stanley wrote in a 2002 paper, “What is it with men and commitment, anyway?” Stanley’s latest book, “The Power of Commitment,” examines cohabitation.

— Cohabitating couples enter into legal and financial ties — such as joint bank accounts and lease-sharing — that make it more difficult to break up and in the end may make marriage inevitable. Combined with a lack of commitment on the front end, the marriage is more likely to end in divorce. Stanley and two other researchers have labeled it the “inertia hypothesis.”

In a paper earlier this year, the team told of a fictional couple — Bob and Mary — who move in together. Mary has the goal of marriage; Bob does not. Eventually, she becomes pregnant.

“When they eventually move on into marriage, with some considerable reluctance on his part, a higher risk marriage is born from an already higher risk relationship,” the paper, written by Stanley, Galena Kline and Howard Markman, states.

— Couples who cohabitate have characteristics different from non-cohabitating couples.

For example, couples living together are more likely to be “less religious,” to have less income and to have parents who are divorced, the National Marriage Project study said. All three characteristics increase the likelihood of divorce.

In addition, cohabitating couples also are more likely to involve child or spousal abuse, the report said.

Negative characteristics of live-in arrangements, Maier said, impact children, who are involved in 40 percent of cohabitating relationships, according to the National Marriage Project.

“… [T]housands of research studies now … show us that children do best on every measure of well-being when they are raised in a home by a biological mother and father [who are married],” he said. “There is just no dispute.”

In addition to being more likely to cohabitate, Americans today also are less likely to marry, the report said. In 2004, 55.1 percent of those age 15 and older were married. In 1980, it was 63.2 percent; in 1960, 69.3 percent.

Americans, Maier said, have forgotten the meaning of marriage.

“I think there is a real selfishness in our culture; there is a real self-centeredness — ‘it’s all about me and my happiness and my fulfillment,'” he said. “Unfortunately, when it comes to relationships, if we don’t put the other [person] first, if we don’t focus on our spouse’s well-being, our relationship is probably going to be destined to fail.”

The Christian church, Maier said, has a responsibility to speak the truth about cohabitation and to strengthen marriages.

“It needs to come from the top down — from denominational leaders, from pastors,” he said. “Every church should do everything it can to provide lifelong stable marriages.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust