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Does Cohabitation Increase or Decrease Chances of Divorce?

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Practice usually improves performance. This seems to be true for sports, music, and dance, but what about marriage? The most significant change in family living over the past 50 years has been the rise in the number of couples who are living together prior to getting married. In the 1970s only about 10% of couples reported living together without being married. By the late 1990s, about half of women ages 15-44 reported that they had lived with a partner without being married.

This has prompted scientists to ask the question, does practice living together improve marital relationships and reduce the risk of divorce? The answer seems to be "no."

Scott Stanley at the University of Denver and his colleagues studied people who were in their first or second marriages to find out how cohabitation influenced marital quality and the likelihood of divorce.

For first marriages, people who cohabitate prior to marriage results in less positive interactions and more conflict when compared to people who do not cohabitate. However, people who cohabitate after becoming engaged look more similar to those who never cohabitate. In short, both those who never cohabitate and those who cohabitate only after becoming engaged have more positive marital relationships and are less divorce prone than those who cohabitate prior to becoming engaged. Stanley suggests that cohabitators who are not engaged drift into marriage without the same level of commitment as the other types of couples.

The researchers also found that in addition to having lower quality marital relationships, couples who cohabitated prior to engagement were also more likely to divorce when compared with the other two groups.

So what about second marriages, does this same effect appear? Among second marriages, cohabitation prior to marriage appears to result in lower marital quality regardless of whether the couple had become engaged or not. The researchers suggest that "engagement" has a different meaning for those contemplating second marriages and that sometimes the engagement period is a long period of time that reflects a reluctance to marry rather than a step toward marriage. Thus, some engaged cohabitating couples considering second marriages might be using "cohabitation" as an alternative to making a commitment to get married. We don't know if cohabitation prior to a second marriage is related to divorce. Scientists haven't looked at this issue.

Commonsense would seem to suggest that cohabitation ought to provide a proving ground for marriage--a chance to work out the rhythms of getting along. This report by Stanley and his colleagues adds to a body of knowledge that has been accumulating for over a decade of research that seems to suggest otherwise. Successful marital relationships seem to be more than figuring out who takes out the trash and even how to resolve conflicts over who takes out the trash. Although learning to resolve differences is very important, marriage also includes an important dimension of "commitment" to the relationship that motivates couples to work on finding better ways to get along and find happiness.