Many news sources over the past week would have us believe, as the Christian Science Monitor reported, “Cohabitation before marriage? It’s no greater divorce risk.” Perhaps you’ve seen such headlines and wondered if it’s true.
In a word, “no.”
There are a few things to consider with this news, which originates from a recent report of the National Center for Health Statistics.
First, this was not a study on cohabitation per se, but an examination of first marriages in the United States. The cohabitation question was only a small subset of the overall report. So it’s far from a full-blown examination of cohabitation and marriage formation in our nation.
Second, seldom does one study, regardless of its quality, create a paradigm change in the common body of knowledge on a topic, particularly in topics of sociology and psychology of family formation. And this is only one study in a very long, impressive, and diverse body of research showing that premarital cohabitation is generally shown to be associated with greater divorce risk in marriage. This study recognizes this fact, explaining that “it has been well documented that women and men who cohabit with their future spouse are more likely to divorce” compared with the non-cohabiting marrieds. In fact, one particular study by a small group of leading family sociologists found that the negative impact of cohabitation upon both marital quality and marital longevity did not wane as cohabitation had become more socially acceptable.
Third, the study itself clearly explains that there were indeed differences in marital longevity between the cohabitors and non-cohabitors. Table 7 shows this clearly, though it shows differences smaller than previous studies. But it does not show “no difference.” The study notes that “women who cohabited with their first husband — regardless of whether they were engaged when they began living together — had lower probabilities of marriage survival at 20 years than woman who did not cohabit before marriage with their first husband.”
Fourth, it is unclear in reading the study, but it looks as if this study looked at only married couples that had lived together — engaged or not — before they married. This means that those who cohabited serially — even only once — before they ever met their future spouses where not included in the analysis. The study does not make this clear, and it is not an insignificant point, seeing that serial cohabitors who marry have a general risk of divorce twice that of those who cohabited only once prior to marriage, whether with their spouse or someone else.
Fifth, after asking a number of leading cohabitation scholars for their take on the study and its contrast with the larger body of research, many of them had serious, honest questions about the report’s methodology and analysis. Not that they thought it was poor. They had a hard time discerning what it actually was, due to its lack of clarity.
So hold up for now before you run out and encourage your friends and kids to go out and start shacking up because the significant negative impact of cohabiting has finally disappeared into the ozone. Lots of good data tells us it’s still there.
— Glenn T. Stanton is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family and the author of many books on family, most recently The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody, 2011)