What's the Plan? Cohabitation, Engagement, and Divorce

Executive Summary

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Institute for Family Studies

Executive Summary

By: Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades

Fifty to 65% of Americans believe that living together before marriage will improve their odds of relationship success. Younger Americans are especially likely to believe in the beneficial effects of cohabitation, and to view living together as providing a valuable test of a relationship ahead of marriage. Yet living together before marriage has long been associated with a higher risk for divorce, contradicting the common belief that cohabitation will improve the odds of a marriage lasting. 

This association between premarital cohabitation and divorce is often called the cohabitation effect. With 70% of couples living together before marriage, it is important to understand how and when cohabitation is associated with poorer odds of marital success. 

Controversy over this topic has abounded, both in the media and in science journals, with some arguing that any association between premarital cohabitation and divorce is due to selection—that is, the association is merely related to differences in who does or does not live together before marriage—and others suggesting that something about the experience of living together makes a couple more likely to struggle in marriage. We believe both selection and experience are part of the explanation, and that there are steps people can take to increase their odds of having a lasting marriage based on how or if they cohabit before marriage. 

Using a new national sample of Americans who married for the first time in the years 2010 to 2019, we examined the stability of these marriages as of 2022 based on whether or not, and when, people had lived together prior to marriage. Consistent with prior research, couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to see their marriages end than those who did not cohabit before marriage. (See sidebar, next page.) 

The primary finding of this report is that the timing of moving in together is robustly associated with marital instability. 

Our findings suggest that one key to reducing the risk of divorce may be either not to cohabit before marriage or to have settled the big question about marital intentions before moving in together.

Key Takeaways

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