- Americans who cohabit before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to break up. Tweet This
- Conventional wisdom holds that spending your 20s focusing on education, work and fun, then marrying around 30 is the best path to maximize your odds of forging a strong and stable family life. But the research tells a different story. Tweet This
- Saving cohabitation for marriage, and endowing your relationship with sacred significance, seems to maximize your odds of being stably and happily married. Tweet This
This past summer, Joey and Samantha Paris did something that shocked many of the New York friends they had made working on Wall Street and Broadway: They married at the age of 24. Their decision to marry in their twenties surprised their peers for three reasons.
First, there’s a common perception that the twenties aren’t for marriage, they are for fun. Most of Joey’s colleagues in finance thought that “the twenties are your time to enjoy and have fun and go out,” he says, adding, their view is that now “is the time to be young and free and independent (and …) you can’t have this fun, free lifestyle while still being married.”
Second, by marrying in her twenties, Samantha broke the cardinal rule for ambitious, professional women in New York. That rule, as feminist Jill Filipovic recently advised her readers, is that “women (ought) not to get married before 30.” This ensures women have the opportunity to successfully launch their careers and fully actualize themselves before merging with an equally successful partner and having the requisite one or two children. Marriage is supposed to be a capstone to a successful life, signaling you have arrived professionally and personally as an individual, not a cornerstone designed to launch your common life together as a family.
Finally, and most importantly, the “conventional wisdom” holds, as sociologist Philip Cohen notes, “that early marriage increases the risk of divorce.” The idea is that it’s best to marry around 30 or later to lower your odds of landing in divorce court. After all, the notion is that young adults don’t have the maturity until they are about 30 to forge a strong and stable marriage.
But when I caught up with Joey and Samantha in Dallas, where they had recently moved, 20-something marriage seemed no obstacle to fun, professional success, or a stable marriage. They sat close and comfortable on a sofa, laughing and finishing one another’s sentences. They were happy with new jobs and they were bullish about their family future. Based on new research Lyman Stone and I conducted for the Institute for Family Studies, Joey and Samantha’s faith in their family future seems merited. Our analyses indicate that religious men and women who married in their twenties without cohabiting first — a pattern which describes Joey and Samantha’s path to the altar to a “T” — have the lowest odds of divorce in America today.
We suspect one advantage that religious singles in their twenties have over their secular peers is that they are more likely to have access to a pool of men and women who are ready to tie the knot and share their vision of a family-focused life. Today, young singles like this are often difficult to find in the population at large.
This was certainly Joey and Samantha’s experience. They met at a party put on by Catholic friends. She says that knowing Joey shared her faith made her comfortable getting more serious, especially in a New York scene where many men she had met took a more short-term orientation to relationships. “The religious guys are more long-term guys, the guys you want to marry and the guys you want to bring home to mom and dad,” she observes, adding, “they’re going to share my morals and my values and have perhaps a similar background.” By contrast, other guys are more likely to be “one-night-stands or (just) looking to have a good time.”
Her intuition here is sound. Shared faith is linked to more sexual fidelity, greater commitment and higher relationship quality. One Harvard study found that women who regularly attended church were about 40% less likely to divorce. The family-friendly norms and networks found in America’s churches, mosques and synagogues make religion one of the few pillars of strong and stable marriages in America today.
Many young adults today believe cohabitation is also a pillar of successful marriages, one reason why more than 70% of those who marry today live together before marriage. But the conventional wisdom here is wrong: Americans who cohabit before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to break up.
Couples who cohabited were 15% more likely to get divorced than those who did not, according to our research. A Stanford study cited other research finding that the link between cohabitation and divorce was especially strong for women who cohabited with someone besides their future husband.
Samantha is not one such woman. She and Joey did not live together before marriage for religious reasons, and both of them see real-world benefits to waiting until marriage to build a home together. They have seen how living together can devalue the distinctive character of married life.
By contrast, Joey and Samantha have found domestic life exciting. From decorating their first Christmas tree together to spending the night together for the first time, they’ve found their new domestic life to be extraordinary and enjoyable.
Samantha also thinks cohabitation fosters a revolving-door approach to relationships. Given that most young adults today who cohabit do so with someone besides their future spouse, “they always see leaving as an option,” she says. And once they marry, that “mindset doesn’t really leave — they always can see that there’s a door to leave ... they can leave at any time. Whereas since we didn’t (have previous cohabiting relationships), that’s just not an option we would think of.”
The psychologist Galena Rhoades, who studies young adult relationships, agrees this could be one reason multiple cohabitations are risky for marriage, but also has other theories on the demerits of multiple cohabitations for future marital success. “We generally think that having more experience is better” in life, she says. “But what we find for relationships is just the opposite.”
More experience with different partners is linked to worse marriages in her research. Having a history with other cohabiting partners may make you discount the value of your spouse. Sure, your husband, John, is dependable and a great father, but not nearly as charming as Luke or as ambitious as Charles, the two other men you lived with before marrying John. Making comparisons like these could undercut your marriage, in Rhoades’ estimation.
The conventional wisdom holds that spending your twenties focusing on education, work and fun, and then marrying around 30 is the best path to maximize your odds of forging a strong and stable family life. But the research tells a different story, at least for religious couples. Saving cohabitation for marriage, and endowing your relationship with sacred significance, seems to maximize your odds of being stably and happily married.
Waiting to move in together until after the wedding has made everything “so exciting,” says Samantha, “because since we did wait then it makes marriage that much sweeter.”
W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia. This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.