Is Cohabitation A Bad Way To Trial Run Marriage?

This research suggests so:

Those couples who had lived together before making a commitment to marriage (e.g., before getting engaged) reported significantly lower quality marriages and a greater potential for divorce than those who didn’t live together at all, or those who lived together only after getting engaged.The researchers’ findings remained significant even when they controlled for other potentially explaining variables, such as length of the marriage, religiousness, and education levels. The researchers also did not find any significant differences “based on cohabitation history for the level of friendship between partners or for satisfaction with the sexual/sensual relationship.” In other words, having a closer partner friendship or increased sexual satisfaction didn’t change their findings.

David Stillwell, in the comments section, sums up my own immediate skepticism about how to read the inference of causality from the study’s results as follows:

Although they controlled for various things, there are still other possible factors that may explain why people who are already more prone to unhappy marriages are more likely to cohabit before getting engaged (e.g. conservatism, other personality factors, cultural factors). I think it is premature to assume that the causality of a poor marriage stems from cohabitation before getting engaged, and so possibly not good advice that not cohabiting will change the course of one’s future marriage.

So, maybe the issue is that those who cohabitate already are more likely to be too habituated to a non-committal attitude towards relationships or have other attitudes which will be predictors of unhappy marriages.  But if that’s the case and you’re someone who was inclined to cohabitate and is scared off from the idea by the realization it leads to unhappy marriages, then the real issue to address is what leads you to want to cohabitate in the first place and the question to ask yourself is whether those attitudes are ones that need to be reevaluated.  Because if cohabitation is not the cause of unhappy marriages but a symptom of bad relationship attitudes, then addressing the real problem involves more than just avoiding cohabitation.

And, maybe, if those deeper issues were resolved cohabitation would not be a big deal after all—assuming people who resolved those issues still wanted to do so anyway.

Having neither cohabitated nor married (nor been remotely close to being in either arrangement personally), I mean to presume no definitive judgment about the psychologies or characters of those who have been in these situations.  And of course I do not mean to judge anyone in particular as everyone’s situation is unique.  I just throw out these speculations in hopes for feedback from those who would know better (from either experience or formal psychological research and training).  So, Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.