05/16/2014 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Living Together: Good for Some, Not So Much for Others


Headlines trumpeted the news: "Co-habitation doesn't cause divorce!" (Live Science) "Best predictor of divorce? Age when couples cohabit" (Christian Science Monitor) "Call your dad: Living Together Before Marriage Does Not Lead to Divorce" (Slate).

All three statements are true for the one-third of younger Americans who have a bachelor's degree from college. And for the other two-thirds? The consequences of living together are more complicated, at best.

What captured media attention were several articles released by the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan organization of family researchers. One of those researchers was Arielle Kuperberg, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. In the April issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, Kuperberg concluded that live-in relationships stand a good chance of lasting if the young people are at least 23 when they move in together. By that age, she writes, they should be able to identify compatibility and conduct themselves appropriately.

"The biggest predictor of divorce is the age at which a couple starts living together, not whether they are married of whether they live together," she says.

Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, says age and compatibility alone are not enough. Another factor, he says, is whether the partners have jobs that provide adequate financial support. Still another -- and perhaps the most important -- is whether both partners are 4-year college graduates.

"Most college kids will co-habit, get married and not get divorced," says Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, a research organization based at the University of Virginia. But, he notes, about two out of three younger Americans do not have degrees at the bachelor's level or higher.

Why would lesser-educated couples have a harder time making their relationships last? Sharon Sassler, a professor of policy analysis at Cornell University, sheds some light on this in a forthcoming book on cohabitation. Young adults tend to move in together within six months of starting their relationships -- more quickly than college graduates. Many do this in part because it's cheaper to support one household rather than two. And indeed, saving on rent may make a positive difference in a relationship.

However, if personal characteristics such as honesty and trust -- arguably as important to relationships as income -- aren't already well established, these couples have less chance of surviving the inevitable rocky times, says Wilcox. They are more likely to split up before getting married, and if they marry, more likely to divorce. That's especially true if they have children they weren't planning for, which many do.

Completing a bachelor's degree in college makes a big difference in the timing of having children. In 2010, 12 percent of unmarried women in their 20's who had graduated from college gave birth to their first child, according to U.S. Census data. In that same year, the proportion was a staggering 52 percent for unmarried, 20-something women with only a high school diploma or some college.

College-educated women are more successful at postponing childbirth for several reasons. The most important, perhaps, is that having a B.A. or B.S encourages and enables them to seek decent-paying employment first. Also, they are more likely to know about, and be able to pay for, the relatively new, vastly improved methods of long-acting, reversible contraception.

(Note to Hobby Lobby and other employers fighting in court to deny insurance coverage of several methods of contraception covered by Obamacare: This is a strong argument for making all contraception affordable and easily available to your employees, unmarried as well as married. Not to do so, when your policies cover highly effective remedies for other medical conditions, is not only unfair to female employees but short-sighted in terms of morale, quality of employee hires, longevity and productivity.)

Research by Evelyn Lehrer, economics professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, came to a conclusion similar to Kuperburg's regarding relationships and age. Every year a woman delays marriage and completes additional years of education, right up until her early 30s, decreases her chance of divorce, she found.

Delaying marriage allows couples to discuss issues which, though common to some couples in previous generations, are more frequent today and call for a couple to take their time before getting married. How will partners share their paychecks? Divide household chores? Do they want children? If they do, when should they have kids and who will take care of them? How will they keep their independence as individuals?

It takes time to negotiate all that successfully, says Jennifer Drake Fantroy. Fantroy and her husband, Justin Fantroy, recently moved from the Washington, D.C. area to St. Louis. "Justin and I were together for a long time, even before we officially moved in together," says Jennifer Fantroy, now the assistant director for the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life. "Before we made it to the 'my toothbrush is here but this is not my address' stage we had a talk about our expectations. I think we were sort of traditional in that sense."

They lived together for four years before getting married two and a half years ago. She was 28, Justin Fantroy, 29. "We never pressured ourselves to get married simply because we had been together for a long time," she says. "While we took cohabiting seriously, we also knew that there was another level of commitment that we both aspired to and hadn't yet reached. For both of us, marriage was an outward signal that this is it."

The idea of having children helped propel them to marry. Not because they felt they should be married to have a child, but because they believed marriage would enable them to provide a more stable, secure family for a child. "We needed health insurance, a clean, safe, place to live, and a job that provided paid leave after I had the baby," she says.

She continues, "We were grateful for our time living together, because it made the transition to marriage a little easier. I can't imagine getting married to someone, and then having to get used to being with them all the time. With Justin, I felt like, I already know that you're going to leave your socks everywhere, and that the cabinet doors will be open every time you leave the kitchen. I can focus on being your next of kin."