Living Together Before Marriage

Some social commentators and young people have suggested living together before marriage is a good idea. There is, however, an ever-growing collection of data that sheds an unfavorable light on the arrangement once called "living in sin."

The prevailing theory is that couples can strengthen their relationships by living together before getting married. Instead of strengthening marriages, however, living together damages future marriages dramatically.

For example, if a woman lives with a man before marriage, she is more likely to cheat on him after marriage. In a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family researchers analyzed reported sexual relationships of 1,235 women, ages 20 to 37, and found that it was 3.3 times more likely that a woman who had cohabited before marriage would have a secondary sex partner after marriage. The study also found that married women were "five times less likely to have a secondary sex partner than cohabiting women" and that "cohabiting relationships appear to be more similar to dating relationships than to marriage." 1

A recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that when couples choose to live together outside of wedlock, their relationship is something quite different from and significantly weaker than marriage. Researchers found specifically that most cohabitations end within two years and that "cohabitations are not informal marriages, but relationships formed by a looser bond. " The Johns Hopkins' study went on to show that men and women looking for someone with whom to cohabit look for "characteristics such as education which can reflect a short-term ability to contribute to the relationship ." In contrast, men and women looking for a spouse pay more attention to "ascribed characteristics (such as age and religion) that reflect long-term considerations." The researchers concluded, "While cohabitors anticipate time together, married persons anticipate a lifetime." 2

Couples who live together before their wedding day will likely be setting a court date for a divorce not long there after. In a study at the University of Western Ontario, sociologists investigated the relationship between cohabitation and divorce among Canadian couples. Through analysis of a national representative sample of over 8,000 ever-married men and women, the sociologists established that "premarital cohabitors in Canada have over twice the risk of divorce...when compared with noncohabitors." It is possible, the researchers acknowledge, that living in a nonmarital union "can have a direct negative impact on subsequent marital stability," perhaps because living in such a union "undermine[s] the legitimacy of formal marriage" and so "reduces commitment to marriage." The researchers also see something more than coincidental in the parallel rise in premarital cohabitation and marital instability . 3

In an article in Family Therapy, sociologists at Northern State University uncovered in their study of college students that cohabitation puts women in a perilous position, often at the mercy of men who regard rape with a disturbing indifference. The study also found that those who are most likely to cohabit indicate "Lower levels of religiosity, more liberal attitudes toward sexual behavior, less traditional views of marriage, and less traditional views of sex roles." All of these findings were expected and unsurprising. What the authors of the study did not expect to find, however, was that "those males who had cohabited displayed the most accepting views of rape." Previous studies have found that men typically cohabit because of the "convenience" of the relationship, whereas women cohabit with "the expectation that cohabitation will lead to marriage"-- thus creating a relationship in which men are likely to "hold a position of power" over women who expect much more from the relationship than they do. No wonder that "cohabiting couples report greater tension in the relationship" than do married couples. 4

In a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers found that only 30 percent of the sample cohabiting couples ultimately married, casting doubt on the value of so-called "trial marriages." The study also showed that those couples who had cohabited before marriage were more likely to have led lives marked by promiscuity than couples who had never cohabited. Cohabitors broke with tradition in other ways, too. Husbands who had cohabited before wedlock were less likely to be employed full time and more likely to have "lower occupational status" than their counterparts who had not cohabited before marriage. Also, wives who had cohabited were more likely to be employed full time than their counterparts who had not. This pattern of employment may explain why married couples who had first cohabited report "less traditional division of domestic labor," with husbands performing more "feminine chores" and wives performing more "masculine chores," than couples who had not cohabited. The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships article also agreed with earlier findings that couples who have cohabited are more likely to divorce than married couples who have never cohabited. 5



1 As reported in The Family in America: New Research, June 1996, p. 3; (Renata Forste and Koray Tanfer, " Sexual Exclusivity Among Dating, Cohabiting and Married Women," Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 [l 996]: 33-47 .)

2 Robert Schoen and Robin M. Weinick, "Partner Choice in Marriages and Cohabitations," Journal of Marriage and the Family 55 [1993]: 408-414.

3 David R. Hall and John Z. Zhoa, "Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada: Testing the Selectivity Hypothesis," Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (1995): 421-427.

4 Terry Huffman et al., "Gender Differences and Factors Related to the Disposition Toward Cohabitation," Family Therapy 21 (1994): 171-184.

5 John D. Cunningham and John K. Antill "Cohabitation and Marriage: Retrospective and Predictive Comparisons," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11 (1994): 77-93.

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Last revision: April 03, 2009 08:30 AM
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