The downside of cohabitation before marriage

A clinical psychologist writes in the New York Times:

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.

Check out the rest.


  1. Another example of the Catholic Church being on the right side of things even though it is considered uncool and old fashioned!!

  2. That has not been my experience, at all. I have observed such couples who have gone on to have religious commitment to their love relationship.

  3. I’ve never been sure where to fit into this particular discussion, as my now-wife of seven years and I lived together as roommates (separate bedrooms, natch) when not dating.

  4. I saw the article this morning. I was shocked it came from the NY Times. It’s right on target. Notice how the author would not commit at the end: “I am not for or against living together…” How dumb. After spending the entire long article explaining why cohabitating is a bad choice, she feels reluctant to commit to a position. Liberal wishy-washyness is amazing.

  5. Mark Greta says:

    Whenever the youth groups meet at Church, this is something that is stressed to them over and over and backed up with a lot of research. The same is true of celebacy before marriage committment having a huge impact in a positive way on marriage. The same is true of using NFP rather than leaving God out through the use of birth control and sterilzation or IVF. When one surrenders their will to God’s with 100% of their heart, soul, and mind, good things happen the vast majority of the time. Yes, bad things happen to good people, but in a world where we are well aware that education is an imporatant part of success in far larger numbers, where we know kids raised by single moms do not tend to do very well, and when we have butchered 54 million babies, seems like it is time to give God’s will for us through total surrender a very long look if we seek peace in our life.

  6. ron chandonia says:

    The Atlanta paper ran an article about the Pew report on their website for WEEKS with a headline focused entirely on the finding that engaged couples who cohabit were no more likely to divorce later than those who do not move in together until after marriage. It was worded something like this: “Coihabitation: No Bad Effects on Marriage.” Of course, the report itself (like the NYTimes piece here) tells quite a different story.

  7. Pre-marital sex is wrong in itself, and cohabitation gives scandal, so neither is licit. But I do wonder whether the attention given to cohab (in marriage prep, for example) is rightly placed? Is it, in fact, cohab that is the problem (or most of it?) or is it pre-m sex? Or is maybe cohab just easier to spot, and implies of course pre-m sex, so it get attention? What about couples that keep separate addresses but, you know. That is far more common than cohab these days, and I have long thought, it has a great impact (negative) on marriage readiness.

  8. The rules are all there for our benefit, but just as effective evangelism starts with a witness to the very desirable results, so should talking about marriage.

    I am blessed with an over 30 year marriage where my wife and I are – most of the time – still crazy about each other. That did not happen by accident.

    When we were dating, the adults around us set up some rules that we followed faithfully. Those rules worked to keep a healthy distance concerning emotion and romance so that both sides could keep their heads about them. No intimacy without commitment, from the first date onward. I interpreted that as waiting on the intimacy until I was really sure. For me that was even being careful with some of what many people consider “innocent” forms of intimacy. That attitude made following the church’s teaching the natural thing to do. Early intimacy before commitment just messes with the minds of those who are intimate too early. It’s like trying to make an intelligent choice while on some drug like Crack. Those don’t usually turn out well.

  9. My wife and I lived together for 11 years before getting married. We are now together 17 years together, which is longer than the past two generations on all sides of my family, and 2-3 longer than the marriages of most of our friends lasted, including all of those who married traditionally or with very little cohabitation.

  10. pagansister says:

    I think it depends on the “couple”. My sister-in-law and her husband lived together (in the early 60′s) for a couple of years before they married 3 1/2 months before we married. They had 2 daughters, and are still married 47 year later, just like my husband and I have been. Being together before marriage doesn’t indicate that after marriage that the marriage won’t last. How many couples that followed “the rules” ended up divorcing? Many.

  11. ron chandonia says:

    The worst downside of cohabitation before marriage is that, especially for poor and lower-middle-income Americans, it really does not lead to marriage at all, even when the cohabiting couple call their shack-up partners fiancées or fiancés. Their relationships never really lead to the altar but very often lead to the birth children who are later reared in households with their mothers alone or, more and more, with new boyfriends who also hold the title but not the responsibility of fiancé. This is a tragedy of major proportions for the children involved and for our society as a whole, one that does not deserve the dismissive remarks of better-off people who boast that “living together” had no ill effects on their subsequent lives, so it must be good for everybody.

  12. Art ND'76 says:


  13. Its interesting that, being the NY Times, the author felt obligated to comment about how things are improving for cohabitation and that people are using it more effectively as a step toward marriage. Utter rubbish of course but if the article were entirely negative it would have shattered to many illusions so carefully contrived and built up about the role of sex in our lives in our secular society.

  14. Mark Greta says:

    I often find it interesting that some who seem to advocate this type of evil and it would seem practice it in their lives are often those who have huge issues with much of Catholic teaching. Being for grave sin seems to put us in position where we find ourselves supporting other grave sins. Thus the co hab supporters often are the same ones supporting gay marriage, contraception, sterlization, IVF, and abortion. Being human, when we live in grave sin and do not seek reconcilliation with God, we make it far easier work for Satan to enter our lives. Marriages certainly are judged on far more things than longevity. Being open to God in all areas of our marriage would be a better overall measure.

  15. Factually it appears that as the meet/ date/ live together and after a few years get engaged and marry trend becomes the norm, the divorce rate of those who live together before marriage should mirror the overall rate.

    What I found fascinating is that even absent any religious dictates, statistically the folks who just seem to fall into co habitation were less happy in marriage. So yes this “old fashioned” ancient practice of waiting until marriage to play house may just have some basis in a positive long term relationship – if you are religious or not . Whowouldthunkit

  16. pagansister says:

    Mark Greta, saying that those who seem “to advocate this type of evil” do not necessarily support gay marriage, contraception, sterilization, IVF and last but not least, abortion. That is a huge stretch, IMO. Yes, marriage is certainly judged on more than longevity. Many have stayed in unhappy marriages for a very long time due to the Church teaching that divorce is wrong. Some of those long marriages were not happy ones.

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