Several studies have shown that couples who live together before marriage are at significantly greater risk of divorce. “Those couples who have lived with each other are noticeably (around 15 percent) more likely to divorce. In “Cohabitation: An Alternative to Marriage?” authors Dr. John Hayward and Dr. Guy Brandon found that couples who have previously lived with a different partner before getting married are around 45 percent more likely to divorce.” (August 30, 2011 as reported in the International Business Times).
This makes one wonder what factors of living together make it more likely for those couples to divorce? Linda Waite from the University of Chicago wrote a paper in 1999 examining some of those factors. Her research revealed a primary reason for living together was that couples wanted to make sure they were compatible. This seems true of those couples who consider a marriage license to be “just another piece of paper.” But while that perception is largely held, there are in fact, significant substantive differences between the two relationships which may explain not only why cohabitation is not a “trial marriage” but also why those relationships have a higher incidence of divorce.
Linda’s research showed domestic violence was greater in cohabitating couples. Financially, cohabitating couples also fared worse. Additionally, Waite found the parenting role of a cohabiting partner toward the non-biological children to be vaguely defined. She said, “The non-parent partner–the man in the substantial majority of cases–has no explicit legal, financial, supervisory or custodial rights or responsibilities regarding the children of his partner.”
In my own divorce mediation practice, I have seen divorcing couples who struggled with discipline issues with the new step-parent. There was often confusion when the couple compared discipline before and after marriage. One client recently said that the spouse “never interfered with discipline when we lived together but after we married, became so controlling and rigid. I don’t know what happened.” The step parent acknowledged (in a private mediation caucus) his lack of authority when the couple was not married and his belief that he had no right to discipline until after the marriage.
Part of what may be happening is that couples have very specific (but not necessarily spoken) expectations of a married partner that do not apply to cohabitation. In addition to discipline, another one of those expectations may be fidelity. In Linda’s research, while cohabitating couples reported that monogamy was important to them, a significantly higher proportion of cohabitating couples were not faithful compared to married couples.
Still, people increasingly are choosing cohabitation over marriage. At the time of Linda Waite’s 1999 research, the latest Census Bureau figures had shown that 4 million couples lived together outside of marriage, eight times as many as in 1970. In a September 15, 2010 paper, Rose M. Kreider (U.S. Census Housing and Household Economics Statistics Division) found that just between 2009 and 2010, the number of cohabiting couples had increased significantly – almost 900,000 or 13% to a total of 7.5 million couples in 2010. Rose attributed that substantial increase to the economic circumstances caused by the recession. She compared couples who had just recently moved in together to those who had lived together longer and found that the newer couples had significantly higher rates of unemployment.
So, while numerous factors apply it appears that cohabitating couples divorce significantly more after marriage because of largely false assumptions that the cohabitating relationship is a sample precursor to marriage. If couples who are living together want to reduce their own possibility of divorce, they would want to first examine their own expectations and then share them with each other. There is no such thing as too much detail in this conversation. They should discuss specifics with regard to parenting, discipline, financial issues, household duties, religious beliefs and practices. The clearer those expectations now, the better their chances for success later.