Why are divorce rates higher for those who have lived together before marriage?
July 12, 2011 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Why is the divorce rate higher for those who have lived together before marriage than those who haven't?

So I was just reading this article from a deleted post on the blue, and came across this statement: "Statistics show that divorce rates are 48% higher for those who have lived together previously." There is no cite in the article.

This goes against what I see as logical reasoning - if you know in advance what it's like to live with your partner, you know what you're getting into and thus the risk of divorce is smaller.

Is it a mistake in the article? Does anyone know of the study the author is referring to? And if it's not a mistake, can anyone think of any reasoning behind this?
posted by coraline to Human Relations (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Common Sense explanation is that couples who are socially/morally conservative to the degree that they do not move in together before marriage are also socially/morally conservative to the degree that they will not seek divorce even if the marriage has gone to shit.

The Common Sense explanation could be completely wrong, of course.
posted by griphus at 7:50 AM on July 12, 2011 [52 favorites]

The generally accepted reasoning behind that statistic is that a lot of people who get married after living together are just "doing the next thing they're supposed to do", even if they really don't want to get married.
posted by Oktober at 7:50 AM on July 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

Wild speculation - marriage used in an attempt to 'save' a flailing relationship.

My friend's aunt lived with her partner for years, they got divorced months after getting married - no idea of the reason though.

On preview: I like griphus' idea.
posted by missmagenta at 7:53 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

They've been together longer; the start time of their domesticity and sexual boredom is when they shack up, not when they marry. The seven-year-itch clock has already struck, and is already winding down.
posted by nicwolff at 7:53 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I always wondered if maybe in some cases there's an expectation of change? That even though they've been living together and should assume no change, the act of being married should lead to differences in the relationship. Then either one or even both partners are bothered when there is no change. Perhaps the opposite is true - a partner who doesn't expect any change, but then suddenly the other partner is trying to change into a "married" couple, whatever that means in their mind.
posted by Windigo at 8:00 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Windigo may be on to something; here's a Carolyn Hax column that provides some good insight.
posted by Melismata at 8:06 AM on July 12, 2011

Best answer: For an excellent overview of marital data and trends, see "Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces" in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (2007); free article access here.

Their brief discussion, with references to articles specifically on the issue:

"While it might seem that cohabiting before marriage should reduce uncertainty about the quality of a couple’s match, U.S. couples who cohabit before marriage have been historically more likely to divorce than those who do not. This pattern may reflect differential selection into cohabitation, as those who live together prior to marriage may be doing so because they are less certain of the quality of their match, or because they stand to gain less from marriage (Lillard, Brien, and Waite, 1995; Brien, Lillard, and Stern, 2006). In other words, those who choose to cohabit may have been more likely to divorce even if they had not lived together first. Cohabitation may also be responsible for some of the reduction in divorce rates witnessed over the past 25 years as separations that previously occurred while legally married may now occur during premarital cohabitation. The difficulty in making any of these attributions convincingly lies in constructing a counterfactual: Would the cohabitating couple still have separated if they had married earlier?"
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:08 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Griphus's explanation is right on the money - the much-quoted cohabitation = divorce stats are really dubious, because the minority that do not cohabitate overlaps significantly with the minority that doesn't allow for divorce under any circumstances. A poorly constructed study (say, one done by a conservative professor with desired results in mind) can therefore make it look like cohabitation=divorce, by examining groups in which all non-cohabators are pre-determined non-divorcers.

On top of which...the actual idea that cohabitation raises divorce rates has been put to bed by better-constructed studies, in particular, the CDC's National Survey on Family Growth.

That first article gives you a good idea of why the cohabitation=divorce theory is so visible: it's loudly trumpeted by religious groups opposed to cohabitation, who don't really care whether it reflects reality or not.
posted by Wylla at 8:23 AM on July 12, 2011 [20 favorites]

@griphus: "The Common Sense explanation is that couples who are socially/morally conservative to the degree that they do not move in together before marriage are also socially/morally conservative to the degree that they will not seek divorce even if the marriage has gone to shit. "

One tends to find this suspicious given that members of conservative religious denominations typically have higher divorce rates generally than members of liberal denominations or "unchurched" individuals in the U.S. Ditto Americans with conservative politics. (Not great links but you can find more.)

@OP: I have also read articles/studies supporting Oktober's explanation, and adding that there's a BIG differential between people who cohabit-with-the-intent-of-marrying and people who cohabit-because-we've-been-dating-two-years-I-guess-we-ought-to-move-in-now. Cohabiting as "the next step" doesn't do so well; cohabiting with someone you basically intend to marry (or long-term partner with) fits your "logical" reasoning better.

However, what would lead you to believe that human relationships obey logical reasoning? ;)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:26 AM on July 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

When my husband and I were in premarital counseling, our therapist explained that her understanding of such research was: if the study compares couples who lived together before marrying with couples who did not, the divorce rate is higher for those who cohabit; however, if the study breaks out couples who lived together essentially without a plan for their future together, couples who lived together with the intention of getting married or being together permanently, and couples who did not live together before marrying, then the divorce rate was only higher for the first group of cohabiting couples (i.e., those without a long-term plan).

Unfortunately, my cursory Google Scholar search hasn't turned up anything interesting. However, it makes sense to me that if you move in with a partner as part of a larger plan to marry and be together long-term, you're starting off on footing similar to the couple who chooses not to cohabit before marrying--your plans and intentions are specific, and you've mutually decided to face the challenges of a life-long partnership together.

Again, that's just my understanding and I haven't found the research that my former therapist was talking about.

And on preview: Wylla's link is exactly what I was looking for.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:26 AM on July 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

@eyebrows Mcgee Cohabiting as "the next step" doesn't do so well; cohabiting with someone you basically intend to marry (or long-term partner with) fits your "logical" reasoning better.

That's exactly what the article on the 2010 survey says.

The religious explanation doesn't explain much about cohabitation per se. It does explain why there are so many press-release-ready studies on the danger of cohabitation. That kind of data is very easy to produce on demand, by skewing the sample.

The divorce rates of conservative groups are related to young marriage within those groups - These groups doom their followers to divorce by encouraging them to marry young, rather than for any other reason (such as failure to cohabitate).
posted by Wylla at 8:32 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

The people I know who cohabited before marriage have nearly all got married just before or just after the birth of their first child.

An obvious explanation for this is would be they are only marrying in order to ensure that someone sacrificing income to provide free child care is legally entitled to some "compensation" in the event of a split.

That is to say, the marriage is an insurance policy against splitting up, rather than a talisman to prevent splitting up, or an announcement of intention to not split up.

Alternatively, one can imagine that this marriage is for the benefit of the children, and that when the children grow up, the imperative to maintain the marriage is no longer present.
posted by emilyw at 8:35 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

@ Horselover Phattie: There is scholarly research to back up that assertion. It's called Sliding versus Deciding: basically, people who moved in together both having marriage as an end goal, did fine. Those who drifted into marriage out of convenience - who "slid" into marriage without really intending to - wound up getting divorced more often. Sometimes it's easier to say "yeah, let's go ahead and get married" rather than break up.

A 1980's self-help book on relationships - a really good one, incidentally! - called The Passion Paradox by Dean C. Delis - related a case of a woman who married partly because her future husband had "a great place" in New York City. She wondered if she would have married him otherwise.

It's not living together that causes couples to divorce - it's why they started living together in the first place. A marriage entered into partly "because he has a great apartment" or "because it's better than dating" isn't nearly as likely to last as one entered into out of love and commitment.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:57 AM on July 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

The generally accepted reasoning behind that statistic is ...

Citation, Oktober?
posted by IAmBroom at 11:07 AM on July 12, 2011

When I was considering getting an apartment with my first serious boyfriend about ten years ago I read a book called (IIRC) A Girl's Guide to Shacking Up. It laid out basically the same information that many posters are pointing to: that cohabitation without a clear, mutually held plans can lead to depression (especially in women) and poor communication, and the difference between happy and unhappy cohabitation (and later, marriage) is you how well your goals upon moving in line up with your partner's. I found it very impartial and eye-opening, and not at all preachy. In fact, I did not move in with that boyfriend, and decided that I will not cohabit until I'm engaged or married. I'm really happy with this decision to keep my own place, as I think it's helped me stay clear-headed and reasonably objective while navigating through long-term relationships. I've definitely seen first-hand how much easier it is to "slide" or get stuck in cohabiting situations.
posted by swingbraid at 5:45 PM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

That cohabitation improves marital prospects is a resilient deeply ingrained social belief. But it is not a factual truth.
posted by Jurate at 1:34 AM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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