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Moving In Together: Does It Lead to a Ring?

April 12, 2007 By:
Adina Matusow, JE Feature
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There must be a reason why half of our parent's marriages ended in divorce. Over the years, I've come up with two theories I hope will help my generation. The fact that singles (on average) are getting married older allows for more time to develop as individuals before tying the knot. This should hopefully result in lowering the divorce rate for my generation.

According to Murphy's 1985 research in Population Studies: For every year that a person on the younger end of the spectrum waits to marry, the divorce rate decreases by 16 percent.

I was also under the impression that living together before marriage would benefit my generation's relationships. Many of my peers agree. Most are currently living with a significant other or have lived with one before marriage. However, a daunting statistic kept popping up in my conversations -- the study that finds cohabitation before marriage increases the chance of divorce.

After reading through some academic journals -- paying particular attention to one of the earlier studies making this claim, a 1988 article by Bennet, Blank & Bloom in the American Sociological Review -- I discovered that the divorce statistic is ever so marginal: 18.3 percent of women separate from their husbands among cohabiters or those who live together before marriage, and 17.4 percent among noncohabiters.

Scott, 32, supports this idea. "Portions of the people moving in together are doing so because their relationships are too weak for marriage. It's a way for one partner to create a sense of things 'going somewhere' to avoid talking about getting engaged. These are the people who end up getting divorced more often and pull up the average divorce rate for all live-in couples, many of whom move in for healthy reasons."

Some academics hypothesized that cohabiters would structure their relationship to have a weaker commitment to the institution of marriage. Again, although the evidence in the 1988 article leans toward this conclusion, the authors could not find a strong enough correlation to prove this lack of commitment in those who choose premarital cohabitation.

'Major Cold Feet'
Still, many people think commitment is stronger in marriage.

"Marriage is hard, but it's the level of commitment that marriage has which gets you through the rough times," says 28-year-old Adam. "Moving in together before marriage is just playing marriage without the legal and emotional commitment. I think you are much more likely to break up and or have major cold feet if you move in first."

Danielle, 25, disagrees with that philosophy. "You don't really know what you are getting yourself into without living with the person first. For me, it added to my relationship when we moved in together, but I realized he was not for me. When his family came to stay with us for an indefinite amount of time, I saw what it was going to be like if we got married. They stopped by all the time unannounced. It was like 'Everybody Loves Raymond.' I don't think I would have seen that element of him if we hadn't lived together."

The increase in cohabitation before marriage since the 1970s points to the importance of understanding the nature of living together -- the real meaning behind close relationships and the benefits to the couples involved.

According to a 2000 study in the Annual Review of Sociology, Smock states that 60 percent or more of couples cohabitate prior to marriage. Some 75 percent of cohabiters report plans to marry their partner, although slightly less than one-half of cohabiters actually wed, according to the Bumpass and Lu's 2000 article in Population Studies.

Josh, 27, is part of the cohabitation trend. "Getting married is likely the biggest commitment that you will make with another person in your life. Why go into it without testing the waters?"

According to the 1988 article by Bennnet, Blank & Bloom, the likelihood of divorce for women who cohabited prior to marriage increased during the first several years of marriage. In fact, in the first two years of wedlock, women who cohabited before their marriage were three times more likely to divorce than those who had not. From two to eight years of marriage, the rate was two times that of noncohabiters. After eight years, the divorce rates between the two groups were insignificant. Beyond the initial years of marriage, those who've remained together seem to "settle in" to their marriage.

It seems plausible that getting to know your significant other through premarital living would strengthen a relationship. The studies that are most disconcerting to me are those that indicate that this may be untrue. Much of the research shows a compelling argument that often, long cohabitations don't end happily.

According to Brown's 2004 study in Social Science Research, "longer cohabitations are associated with poorer relationship quality." According to Bumpass and Sweet's 1989 article in Demography, less than 10 percent of significant others who live together before marriage stay together for more than five years.

The 1988 study finds women who live with a significant other before marriage for longer than three years have a 54 percent higher divorce rate than those who cohabit for shorter durations. Those who live with someone for less than three years seem to have identical "rates of dissolution" to those who don't live together before marriage.

In my last article, one reader suggested that couples these days know each other better than did those in our parents' generation. Could this be true? Is there a flaw in the traditional "courting, engagement, marriage" recipe?

Despite what I've read, I'm still optimistic that getting to know a person by living with them before marriage has the potential to strengthen a relationship and a marriage.  

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