Does Cohabitation Lead to More Divorces?


Drew Coffman

Have you ever wondered about those statistics on living together and divorce?  Studies consistently show that couples who lived together before marriage have a much higher divorce rate—the latest I read said 50% higher—than couples who didn’t cohabitate.

That has always seemed strange to me. After all, a lot of those couples are living together in an effort to prevent divorce. They figure you can’t really get to know someone until you live with them. So they live with them. They move in together to see if they really want to spend the rest of their lives together, if they can stand the day to day with this person for the rest of their days.

And yet, they divorce at higher rates than those who didn’t “try it out” first.

At first, I figured it was a reflection on the people themselves. I thought that perhaps people who are likely to live together before marriage are the same people who are likely to divorce instead of “sticking it out” when times get tough. Religious people are less likely to cohabitate, and less likely to divorce. So I figured perhaps we were just seeing a contrast between the less religious people and the more religious people.

Not a perfect theory, because I’ve known a lot of good, faithful Catholics who didn’t cohabitate, and who later found themselves in extremely justifiable divorces. But it seemed like a good working hypothesis.

But apparently that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t just that people who are likely to cohabitate are also likely to divorce. Rather, it is the very act of living together that makes for less stable marriages, and more divorce down the line.

The New York Times recently ran an article on “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage.” The author, clinical psychologist Meg Jay, talks about a phenomenon she called “sliding, not deciding.”

Here’s how it goes. A couple starts dating. They start having sex. Soon they’re sleeping over at each others’ places, and they realize it doesn’t make sense to be maintaining two households when one is empty most of the time. So they decide to move in together. They may have a wide variety of motivations at this point. They want to save money. They may or may not be “testing the waters” for marriage. Often, the women sees it as an “audition” or “trial run” for marriage, while the man is more motivated by convenience. Regardless, it is generally true that they are not, at the time they move in together, both convinced that they want to marry each other. They’re still in the “finding out” stage.

But what happens? They make a significant investment in each other. They share an address. They buy furniture together. They may even buy a house together. They get a pet. They present themselves to their neighborhood—and the world—as a “couple.” They mingle their lives, and their assets, to a significant degree. Jay calls these “set-up costs”—physical and emotional costs paid to enter into the cohabitation arrangement.

The problem with “set-up costs” is that they lead to “switching costs” if the relationship doesn’t work out. Breaking up is traumatic enough as it is. The break-up of a sexual relationship is infinitely more traumatic, due to the bonding caused by the hormones released in sexual activity.  (More on that later.) Compound that with the additional costs inherent in a living together break-up—having to move out of your home, fight over furniture, create a custody arrangement for the dog. Couples reach a point where they have so much invested in the relationship that it’s easier to stay together than to deal with all of the physical and emotional “switching costs” involved in a break up.

And so, instead of making a good, rational decision about whether or not this is the best person to spend the rest of their lives with, they “slide” into marriage.

But the relationship often isn’t built on a solid foundation. Whatever problems existed in the relationship before marriage continue to grow. Then children come, placing additional pressures on the couple. Small financial problems compound. Over time, the “costs” associated with marrying the wrong person start to outweigh the “costs” of leaving.

Hence the higher divorce rate. It isn’t so much that living together changed what their marital relationship would look like. It’s more that, if they had maintained the objectivity that comes with living apart, they probably wouldn’t have married in the first place.

Look, I know a lot of couples who lived together before the wedding and went on to have fabulous marriages. And I’ve seen more than a couple of train wrecks in which bride and groom didn’t share an address until after the honeymoon.

But the statistics are clear. If you want to increase the likelihood that your vows stick, and that forever really turns out to be forever, don’t terminate your lease just yet.

Sleep in your own bed until you walk down the aisle. It’ll pay huge dividends in the long run.



  1. Dean-1150250 November 27, 2014 Reply

    IMO, the number 1 cause of divorce is marriage. I’m not trying to be witty. The real issue is marriage itself. Modern marriage isn’t anything like it was meant to be. It has become a contractual obligation structured as a business and is built on a model that sets up the couple for failure from the beginning. Marriage that involves the state and divorce courts is all about money and assets.

    Is marriage about love between two people who want to share their lives together and possible have children? Or is it about finding someone to make you feel safe and secure and provide all the “stuff” you want to live a comfortable life with divorce being an opportunity to take it with you and maybe have that other person continue to work for you as your wage slave through court enforced alimony?

    Is marriage about God and love or money?

  2. Marcus-860000 July 30, 2014 Reply

    This has been called into question in some recent research:

  3. Theresa-110510 March 6, 2014 Reply

    Bravo Mary Beth! Great article. However I for one was never in doubt when I first read Dr. Brothers talking about the higher divorce rate for those who live together first before marrying; it only made sense.

    What do we know about two people who choose to live together and not marry after all? That one of them wants to be more serious, and the other doesn’t. (If neither of them cared for each other that much they wouldn’t be together; if both were truly in love they’d be getting married.) We also know that the one who doesn’t want to marry knows that the other partner would like to; but cares not enough about them to set them free to find the one for them. If the man is the user, he is willing to get his fill of his woman and watch her clock wind down when he knows he will never propose to her. Nice guy.

    Another thing we know, if they say they are ‘seeing if they are suited for marriage’ is that they have determined that while dating from different addresses they didn’t find out enough to get engaged. Somehow moving in together would help them find out more. Sorry – but all that’s going to do is ensure that you’ll both be getting sex more regularly and have less bills to pay; and as a woman, the idea of exchanging sex for money I find more than a little repulsive. I don’t need my faith telling me this is wrong or just plain stupid. Why on earth would any woman think she had to ‘audition’ for the role of wife? If a man wanted to buy a car, does he think he could ask the dealer if he could take it home for a while to see if he grew to love it and want to buy it? That a simple test drive wouldn’t cut it? We know where he’d be told to go and how to get there (walking!) I am better than a car!

    People thinking if the problems are too much and they’ll just walk are completely ignorant. Do they think they are going to have any rational discussions once they are living together with all the benefits that go with that? They’ll be walking on eggshells the entire time to avoid serious discussions since now there is more riding on things. And they don’t want to give up the regular sex. And the one wanting to get married won’t want to rock the boat so nothing serious will ever come up. I’ve heard of couples who have lived together and then married, for example, who didn’t know that they didn’t feel the same way about children. Imagine! Divorcing after years together; when that should be found out within a couple of dates!

    If you aren’t with the perfect one there is another point: why are you wasting your precious time? What happens should you meet someone who you really think is right for you; do you think they’ll look at you twice if you’re living with someone else? How would you go about dating anyway when you are expected home at a certain time? (Many who live with their partner also do it as a way to keep tabs on the other; which shows a lack of trust. Trust can only develop with time, if it is meant to at all.)

    People have to realize that all marriages have issues and problems. It’s how they are reacted to that matters. When people are truly in love with one another they will want to work the matters out; if they are not in love, they won’t care. I have always found that when people meet the one for them that they know; and no living in the same address beforehand is necessary. In fact they can’t wait for forever to start.

  4. Susai-984210 March 1, 2014 Reply

    Yes I agree. My boy friend who is anglican met me 2001 stringed me along. I was naive so I thought that I need to wait some how he broke my heart by breaking up with me after 10 years. My point is that I was pressured to have sex before marriage but by the grace of God I didnot go that path. Now this year the same man my ex
    met me and asked me to move in with him so that I can save money. I am a woman alone living my life . Yes its a struggle to pay bills etc, I was so tempted to move in with him again by the grace of God isaid NO and now I crossed the age of child bearing, however accepting MY FATE . Now the main focus for me is to use my life toi glorify God if its His will for me to meet a respectful geniuine husband for His glory then I believe and have faith that I will meet him one day.

  5. Dominic-981542 February 19, 2014 Reply

    Actually the reason behind as to why most people live together before marriage is because
    (one) They value there sexual apatite before respect or true love
    (two) Marriage has no real meaning for them , its just a piece of league paper you sign.
    (three) They would have just as easy slept around before they met some one to live with.
    (four) Relationships is about sex and love for it and so as time goes by each one would have committed adultery over 100 times.
    (five) Every one is doing it so it must be normal.
    (six) Its fair to say Mary Beth you already mention this one in your article ,

    The reason why its not a Good thing Norbert-98169 is because its against the nature of what is right . . Male & Female are not really equal when it involves sex , be free to ask me why ?

  6. Norbert-98169 February 18, 2014 Reply

    I remember reading an article by the late Dr. Joyce Brothers and even she said that cohabitation isn’t a good thing to do before marriage.

  7. Joan-529855 February 15, 2014 Reply

    I have seen William’s point again and again; living with someone they wouldn’t consider marrying. Many times one or both continue to seek someone else while living together and when no one else better comes along they “slide” into marriage.

  8. Sonya-261658 February 13, 2014 Reply


  9. Kathy-730470 February 13, 2014 Reply

    A very nice article and soooo true.

  10. William-607613 February 13, 2014 Reply

    There is an earlier piece in the NY Times on the same subject:

    (This is often referred to as the “cohabitation effect.”)

    IIt’s been said that a person will have lower standards for a person he or she would live with versus the person he or she would marry. So a woman, for example, agrees to live with a man that she would not consider suitable for marriage but who she would consider suitable for what is basically (but not officially) a husband-and-wife relationship just outside of marriage.

    After a while they figure, “Why not? We live our lives as husband and wife anyway.” And then (too late) they realize that they were never compatible as husband and wife.

    Mother Church has been warning Catholics of this for the past two thousand years, and people ignore the Church’s teachings at their own peril.

    We don’t have to know WHY a particular action is a sin, God’s instruction to us that it is a sin is all we need. It is FAR more important to be obedient than to be smart enough to know the scientific reasoning that reinforces the logic behind natural law.

  11. Larry-670461 February 13, 2014 Reply

    Bravo Mary Beth!!! I can so relate to what you have written. I wish I could back in time and talk to that man two decades ago, but would I have listened? I don’t know because “I knew it all.” Hindsight is 20/20 and we live and learn. I hope others will take what you have written to heart. Thanks so much for authoring an article that is so “spot on.”

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