Sara and Ethan* started dating in 2012. One year later, Ethan told Sara he wanted to try and figure out what he wanted to do with his life and was seriously considering an out-of-town move.
“I was attending a community college at the time, but knew I needed to transfer to a four-year school,” says Sara. “I felt like our relationship was strong, but trying to keep things going from a distance didn’t seem like a good idea. Since UTC was close to where Ethan would be, I decided to move as well.”
Money was tight for Ethan and Sara. Living together made sense to them financially, but Sara was concerned about what her family and others would think.
Ethan and Sara are among the more than 70 percent of couples who choose to live together before tying the knot.
“Cohabitation has greatly increased in large measure because, while people are delaying marriage to even greater ages, they are not delaying sex, living together or childbearing,” say researchers Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades. “In fact, Dr. Wendy Manning noted in her 2018 address to the Population Association of America that almost all of the increase in non-marital births in the U.S. since 1980 has taken place in the context of cohabiting unions.”
Stanley and Rhoades note that increasing cohabitation rates, as well as serial cohabitation, might be of no special consequence except for the many births that now occur in those unions. Some of these couples have a long-term commitment similar to marriage, but on average, cohabiting parents are much more likely than married parents to break up, increasing the odds of family instability for children.
Additionally, a Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics report found that cohabiting men and women tend to be poorer and less-educated than married ones, which creates a greater disadvantage for children. For instance:
47.9% of cohabiting women had household incomes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, compared to 25.6 percent of married women.
36.1 percent of cohabiting men had incomes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty line compared to 21.2 percent of married men.
25.2 percent of cohabiting women had incomes over 300 percent of the federal poverty line, compared to 48.1 percent of married women.
32.4 percent of cohabiting men had incomes over 300 percent of the federal poverty line, compared to 52.4 percent of married men.
25.3% of cohabiting women had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 43% of married women.
16.2% of cohabiting men had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 36.5% of married men.
Large majorities of married, non-married and cohabiting couples believe that having and raising children without being married is fine and that living together before marriage may help prevent divorce.
“This notion has had wide acceptance since at the mid-1990s, when three-fifths of high school students believed that, ‘It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along,’” Stanley and Rhoades say.
Based on their ongoing research on cohabitation however, Stanley and Rhoades have strong evidence that some patterns of living together before marriage are associated with increased risks for less successful marriages, that experiences and choices impact future outcomes, and that cohabitation is definitely linked to relationship risks.
“What this means is that people who are already at greater risk for worse outcomes in relationships because of things like family background, disadvantage or individual vulnerabilities are also more likely to do any of the following: cohabit and not marry, cohabit before having clear, mutual plans to marry, or cohabit with a number of different partners over time,” Stanley and Rhoades assert.
There is significant research showing that people learn from experiences and that experiences change people’s beliefs, so it’s no surprise that the experiences of living together change people's beliefs about marriage. Consequently, Stanley and Rhoades believe that the increase in cohabitation, serial cohabitation and premarital cohabitation has led to consistent downward trends in the belief that marriage is special.
Another concern is that cohabitation makes it harder to break up.
“Because of the inertia of living together, some people get stuck longer than they otherwise would have in relationships they might have left or left sooner,” Stanley and Rhoades say. “We believe some people marry someone they would otherwise have left because cohabitation made it too hard to move on. While the increased risk can be modest, the prediction is consistently supported through numerous studies showing that those who cohabit before deciding to marry report lower than average marital quality and are more likely to divorce. This is compounded by the fact that most couples slide into cohabiting rather than make a clear decision about what it means and what their futures may hold.”
Finally, since more children are being born to unmarried parents in relatively unstable relationships, studies indicate that only 1 out of 3 children born to cohabiting parents will remain in a stable family through age 12 compared to nearly 3 out of 4 children born to married parents. This means that many who cohabit are entering future relationships with the challenge of children as part of the package.
Our society finds itself in a complicated reality where a very large portion of the population is choosing to live together before marriage. There’s a lot for all of us to consider when the research shows that emotional, financial, educational and social stability of cohabiting impacts current and future relationships, along with the communities in which we live.
*Names have been changed.