Friday, June 23, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Does Living Together Before Marriage Help the Odds?

From Po:

Today, most couples live together before they marry. We do this for all sorts of mishmashed reasons. You're sleeping in the same bed every night anyway, for instance. Why maintain the cost of two residences? And this living together period is, supposedly, a good way to get the kinks out - sharing closets and bathrooms, learning to communicate when something's bothering you, et cetera. It works like a trial run. If it's not working, you can break up before taking a permanent oath to each other. Many people move in together with no mention or intention of marriage yet; that kind of talk only comes months or years later.

In theory, living together should help the odds, right? It should help prevent some bad marriages from ever occuring - shouldn't it?

Here's the surprising catch: for more than a decade, sociologists have measured that people who have cohabitated before marriage divorce more, not less.

And this wasn't a small difference. In the most famous study, which drew data from a huge number of marriages, people who had cohabited before marriage had only a 49% chance of seeing their 15th wedding anniversary. People who had not cohabited before marriage had a 61% chance of seeing their 15th anniversary. That's a 12% swing! By that measure, it was one of the stronger variables affecting marital stability.

That was back in 2002, and you can imagine how this was seized on by the conservative media: "Living together before marriage leads to divorce!"

Let's call this paradox the Cohabitation Conundrum. If we all assumed living together was beneficial, why were the statistics convincingly showing the opposite?

There was always something fishy about the Cohabitation Conundrum, though. Think of it this way: since the 1970s, cohabitation has been steadily on the rise. Nowadays, most couples do it - almost 80 percent do. And in that time, the divorce rate has actually stabilized, and maybe gone down. It certainly has not gone up.

So what was going on? Well, you might suspect that the authors of that famous 2002 study were religious conservatives who frowned on cohabitating - maybe their study was biased. But let me assure you that is not the case at all. All of the sociologists that Ashley and I quote are even-keeled scholars who only want the truth. We do not invoke biased reports on this blog.

So how to explain it then? Well, in the four years since 2002, sociologists have been slicing and dicing the phenomenon to get a better picture.

Here's some reasons the sociologists had this measured inaccurately for so long:
  1. Poor people tend to cohabitate before marriage more than well-off people. (Moving in together does save rent.) And poor people, because they experience more stressors in their lives, tend to divorce more. So the higher divorce rate among cohabitators may have nothing to do with whether they lived together first.

  2. They aggregated all marriages together, going back a couple decades. People who cohabitated back then, when it was less common, had somewhat different results than people who cohabitate today.

  3. They had asked people too broad a question - "did you cohabitate before marriage?" They did not distinguish between people who had cohabitated only with their eventual spouse, and people who had cohabitated with someone else, not their eventual spouse.

  4. When they further cross-analyzed the data by race, they learned that cohabitation increased the odds of divorce for whites, but not for blacks or hispanics.

  5. They didn't have the chance to ask people, "why did you move in together?" This turned out to be very key.
Those distinctions point directly to the conclusions we can make about cohabitation. But probably the top note is that these subfactors did not reverse the cohabitation conundrum, they just made it go away under certain conditions.

In other words, no study has actually found that cohabitating before marriage helps the odds. Only that under certain conditions, it didn't hurt the odds.

It turns out that couples who moved in together with the full-intent of marrying - maybe they were even engaged - do not divorce more than those who never cohabitated.

But couples who moved in together because it was convenient, or because they felt they needed a trial period - those are the ones who tend to get divorced more often. Why didn't this filter work? Well, many couples who "try it out" do break up before marrying, but many of them also just follow the path of inevitability. They had reservations, but they get acclimated to those, and they believe they can live with it. They pretend, "It won't be a problem." Many couples who get divorced will tell you, "The warning signs were there, I just didn't think it would be a problem." So many of these couples "try it out" and ignore the evidence, if you will. They marry anyway, and somewhere down the road they realize "yup, it's a problem." This could be as mild-mannered as a personality conflict, or as major as alcoholism, or somewhere in between - like sexual compatibility.

Here's a curious gender twist that the odds-makers know:

If the bride has cohabitated with another man, (not her eventual spouse), her odds of divorce go up. But if the groom has not cohabitated with another woman - if he's never shacked up with another gal, other than the bride - his odds of divorce go up. Having nothing to compare his marriage to, he might not realize how good he has it. His expectations are probably too high, and he'll get disappointed sooner when the honeymoon wears off.

Lastly, how long the couple lived together before marriage does not appear to be a factor on whether they divorce. Just doesn't.

I recognize the variety of these variables can be hard to apply to one's own life. It doesn't sort out to simple rules, like "Guys should live with another girl first, but girls shouldn't live with a guy unless he's already proposed." Because these are odds, not direct causes. People choose to cohabitate, and then the sociologists measure the outcome. But cohabitation may not be the catalyst. The choice to cohabit may be indicative of underlying relationship chemistry or commitment tenacity - and that might be what really determines who gets divorced.

So what about not getting married? Some couples don't want to ever marry, but they do want to spend the rest of their lives together. Can you cohabit your way "til death do us part"?

Certainly you can, but if you do so, you've really beaten the odds. No sociologist has been able to isolate just those particular couples, so if you're one of those people, I can't say there's a study focussing just on your ilk. But we do know that cohabitating relationships do not last nearly as long as marriages, on average. Again, this could be because of socioeconomic factors - poorer people cohabitate more and marry less, and their lives have many stressors, so their partnerships won't last as long (on average). It's also true that cohabitating couples are less homogamous than married couples. Ashley taught us that term yesterday, and it means "similar." So for all these reasons, we would expect unmarried couples who live together to break up sooner than married couples (on average). Thus, the numbers are no surprise.

If anything, you could argue that the reason the divorce rate has stabilized is not because Dr. Phil is on our television and the bookstores are filled with books on marriage and we have decided, as a society, to never take divorce lightly. The reason the divorce rate might have stabilized is that people in poverty - who are likelier to divorce - are not getting married as much. They're increasingly choosing to live together, rather than marry, and thus their "break ups" don't appear in the divorce statistics.

Not that Dr. Phil and all those books haven't been helpful.

Next up: Does Having Kids Help or Hurt the Odds? And if so, how many kids? And does their gender matter?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also true that cohabitating couples are less homogamous than married couples. Ashley taught us that term yesterday, and it means "similar."

tsk, tsk. Have you measured the educational status of your reader? No one likes this kind of arrogance.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

That's a weird comment. Maybe you know that term, but neither Ashley nor I had heard the term before 4 days ago. And if you hadn't read her previous post on the topic (which is likely for many, since this page runs with most recent posts on top, older posts below), most readers might not know the term either. In fact, Ashley and I still have trouble pronouncing the term sociologists use to describe couples of different races, religions, and classes, etc. - "heterogamy." The word's a mouthful.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Po and Ashley do not have one ounce of arrogance between them. Their achievements, education and excellent work they do for others are appreciated by many, many people.

I am really interested in the statistics presented in these posts and the detailed interpretation of them. I would love to see the same dissection of divorce statistics. I.e. how long do people wait before initiating divorce? What makes a successful divorce (I believe there is such a thing!) What factors make the odds of a second marriage happier? How long is the recovery period? Why are some people happier after and others never seem to get it together again?

Have studies been made on this?

It is nice to see what factors play a part in a happy, stable marriage but it would also be new for me to read about what happens in the real world once a marriage becomes a divorce statistic. Plus the statistics do seem to take the emotional element out of the situation, does the pain of divorce feature anywhere?

11:02 AM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

That's a great set of questions, Claire. Yes, it's been studied, and we have that data and intend to get to it. The biggest study on why people divorce was from 1983, it's incredibly old. But there's been some done recently, which Ashley found after interviewing a noted sociologist on Thursday afternoon.

Then there's the separate question of what makes a divorce work, and what makes it a continuous headache. We hope to get to all of it. Thanks.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Reposting what I just deleted . . . .

Thanks to Claire for your kind post, and, to echo Po, yes, we're planning on doing something about divorce along the line.

But we're taking things in smaller bites because it helps us isolate some of the issues not normally addressed in popular media. It also takes us a while to read and discuss our topics: for example, Po and I have probably read 1000 pages (or more) about marital duration in the past week or two. So we have to focus in one topic, otherwise there's just too much data out there, we'll lose our train of thought, and my brain will blow up.

To respond to "Anon.," first, I don't have a measurement of the "educational status" of our readers.

(I do wish, since I'm on this, that the regularly-commenting Anons would somehow identify themselves, just so I can keep them separate. I don't mean that you have to give a real name, or get a blogger ID -- but adding a single letter initial after the post or something would help me keep track of who is responding.)

Now, as for my hope, I think that Po and I try to write in a clear enough fashion that is accessible across any particular educational-level. But we're probably getting readers with at least some college-education, if not more. But rather than target to any particular degree-level, for me, it's more that when I read something and wonder "Why don't I know that?" -- that's the sort of stuff I enjoy blogging about the most.

(And we're mindful that some of our readers are from outside of the US, which also varies their vocab and frames of reference.)

Also, I'm an attorney, and one of the things drilled into me in law school and in my practice, is that one of the most important things you can do is define your terms -- so that everyone has a common vocabulary. That goes double when using anything that smacks of jargon. That sometimes may come across as talking down to someone well-versed in that field, but it in no way is meant to be: instead, it's just making sure that we're all on the same page.

9:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand that our topic here is marriage, but I feel that the "non-marriage" deserved a closer look in this post. Maybe living together does not increase the odds in marriage, but it does prevent people from entering ill-suited marriages in the first place, and this is not captured in the data. If you decide not to marry someone you lived with, you have avoided any chance of divorcing this person by not marrying them in the first place. I think people see this "weeding out" feature as the main benefit to co-habitating.


1:51 PM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Hi, Quinn,

Cohabiting is an important topic on its own, and we'll get to eventually (sooner, if we feel like it's something people are curious about). And actually, there are vastly different reasons why people cohabit: they vary dramatically by race, education, etc. which is why we did decide to stick just to marital stability / dissolution here, and we didn't get it into that all that much.

In the meantime, I have more information on why people move in together, etc. in the Factbook's page on Unmarried Partners ( ) The factbook's more facts than analysis, that's why we started the blog, really, to do the analysis, but it has some information I think is helpful.

9:17 AM  
Anonymous Gauravonomics said...

Po/ Ashley: Excellent post! Will be back for more.

Also, as an aside, it's interesting to know that 80% of all couples in the USA cohabit before marriage. In India, that percentage will be a small, but growing, double digit number.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Genecks said...

I don't see sources.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

We brought together research from 71 articles, after considering almost 200 such articles. The list was too long to include here, sorry. It meant reading almost 1,500 pages of journals. So we have them all, but it's too huge a list to do a complete bibliography.

9:33 AM  
Blogger SleepingBeauty said...

Awesome blog. Thanks for the insight into my situation as a person that cohabitates.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your article for its unbiased approach to data analysis. It's not often that one comes across an article in which the author(s) has considered several underlying factors and is open to opposing possibilities. Also, I enjoyed the article because it brought up many points I have not previously come across in researching cohabitation. Well done! I'll be back!

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder what you think of living separately after having been married for a long time (10 years). This is where I am at...LOL... It sounds crazy, I know. I think it is going to save my marriage though. We both still love each other, I mean we have 10 years invested. We are looking into buying a multi-unit home and each keeping our own "unit" within this home.

No divorce, no separation, but just living in our own area.

(Here is the background...we fight because I am a slight slob. My husband is obsessive compulsive clean nut. We are hoping that by keeping our own places we will stop the arguing and fighting totally and just be back to being great lovers. LOL.. We only fight about cleaning stuff generally.)

7:50 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Well, this is a story about statistics, mere odds, and while I've seen some stats on the growing number of couples who are married but living apart, (Mark Penn's forthcoming book, Microtrends, has a chapter on the trend), those numbers only detail how many couples like that exist. They don't detail how many split up over time.

5:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Cohabitation is a recurring topic of discussion between my girlfriend and me.

You stated that the collection of articles used for this "report" was too large to list; however, I would really, really like to read a few of the most informative excerpts. *Anything to help my case :) *


(I had to look up homogamous)

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing about the study is that it fails to account other variables. It assumes that there are 2..cohabitating and non cohabitating. Don't many who get married before living together hold strict religious beliefs on premarital sex? Wouldn't those same religious beliefs affect opinions on divorce? As the old saying goes, there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics! The point is, there is a correlation between the two but not evidence that one causes the other. To truly know if living together before marriage was a precursor to divorce...all other variables would need to be removed. Obviously they can't. However, studies like this are touted by the religious right as proof of the sin of cohabitation. This is why studies like this can be so dangerous.

8:44 AM  
Anonymous A. said...

I really appreciated this article. I've been raised with the saying 'why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free' and what not, so when I decided to move in with my partner, I was already worried I might be shooting our relationship in the foot. Now, everything is going perfectly between us, but the condo we are moving into belongs to his family. We have plans to make many interior design and structural changes, which his family is open to, but they are very involved. My concern is that this condo will never feel like ours because they will always consider it theirs. I am now hesitant about moving in together because of a fear that they will continue to think of the space as theirs and that changes I want to make have to meet some sort of judgement. Since this is really the only way we can afford to move into a nice place together (and he will no matter if I do or not), I don't know how to decide to proceed. He is already expecting and excited for us to start a home together and I don't want to mess anything up by postponing moving in because of his parents or by rushing into moving in together when I am concerned about my (less than excited) feelings about his family and their level of involvement with our lives. However, this article at least relieved some of my fears that the pre marital move in is the easiest way to mess up a good thing. So thanks for that!

12:11 PM  
Anonymous T said...

Really great post. I'm researching cohabitation for a college paper as well as for personal interest and I think this is the post that I've understood the most. It's not all stats, but analysis of the stats. I'll definitely be back. :) -T

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From blog:
"So what was going on? Well, you might suspect that the authors of that famous 2002 study were religious conservatives who frowned on cohabitating - maybe their study was biased. But let me assure you that is not the case at all. All of the sociologists that Ashley and I quote are even-keeled scholars who only want the truth. We do not invoke biased reports on this blog."

You seem to be stating above that conservative scholars cannot be even-keeled and do not want to know the truth. It also suggests that conservative scholars cannot be unbiased and objective.

This is insulting and discriminatory. By what you aresaying all religious conservative scholars are not qualified to be professors or conduct unbiased studies. If universities and colleges had this attitude in hiring professors, they would be guilty of discriminating based on religion in their hiring practices, which is against law.

5:27 AM  

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