Public Release: 

Living together before marriage: Now common but still risky

Penn State

Even though more than half of couples now do it, compared with only 10 percent 30 years ago, living together before marriage still is linked to higher rates of troubled unions, divorce and separation, Penn State researchers have found.

The Penn State team compared data on 1425 people married between 1964 and 1980 when cohabitation was less common and between 1981 and 1997 when cohabitation was more common. They found that, in both groups, cohabiters reported less happiness and more marital conflict than noncohabiters. Also, in both groups, couples who lived together before marriage were more likely to divorce.

Claire M. Kamp Dush, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies, is first author of the study. She says, "It had been consistently shown in the past that, contrary to the popular belief that living together will improve a person's ability to choose a marriage partner and stay married, the opposite is actually the case."

The study, "The Relationship Between Cohabitation and Marital Quality and Stability: Change Across Cohorts?," was published this month in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. Dush's co-authors are Dr. Catherine Cohan, research scientist, and Dr. Paul Amato, professor of sociology and demography.

Although all the reasons why cohabitation and troubled unions are related remains unknown, the researchers report that their data and a review of the literature suggest that both personal characteristics and the experience of cohabitation play important roles.

The Penn State team notes that research indicates that people choose riskier partners when cohabiting because they think cohabitation will be easier to break up than marriage. However, once a couple is living together, the fact that they share possessions, pets, and children and have invested time in their relationship may propel them to marry.

Research has also shown that living together in an unconventional relationship can make people less religious and may encourage them to develop problematic relationship skills and to spend less time resolving problems or providing support to their partners.

They write, "A weak commitment to lifelong marriage and less attention to communication skills during cohabitation may carry over into marriage and make couples more vulnerable to the inevitable challenges that couples face over time."


The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of Aging and by the Penn State Population Research Institute with core support from a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant.


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