Let’s be clear: shacking up is still bad for your marriage

Living together before you get married is OK, claims a new American study published last week. Written by Arielle Kuperberg, Professor at University of North Carolina, the paper found that couples who live together before they get married have a higher rate of divorce. But the reason for this is not because they moved in together but because they did it at a younger age.

So the real culprit is age – and not cohabitation – that influences future marriage prospects.

For those like me who champion marriage and question uncommitted cohabitation, this appears to be a bit of a setback. Equally for those who have never really understood why marriage should be a big deal, this is the long lost evidence for which they have been waiting.

The US media loved this story and the news even made it over here across the pond.

“Cohabitation before marriage does NOT cause divorce, say experts” (Daily Mail). My favourite headline was “Go ahead and shack up” (Houston Chronicle).

Actually, this finding isn’t completely new. There’s been a growing debate for years about whether the premarital cohabitation effect exists at all any more. This study confirms that it does exist but that the effect isn’t really about cohabitation.

So is this the final nail in the coffin of concerns about cohabitation?

Not quite.

The one clear finding from the study is that moving in too early – whether before or after you marry – puts your future marriage at greater risk.

But what the study definitely does not show is that moving in together before you get married is risk free.

Professor Scott Stanley and colleagues at the University of DenverSLI noticed some years back that the real issue about cohabitation was whether couples make a decision about their future before taking on the constraints of living together.

Couples who “slide” rather than “decide” into living together subsequently find it harder to unravel the complexities of living together. “Inertia” then sucks couples in fragile relationships onwards into childbirth and marriage.

Only then do they split up, after having a baby or after having got married.

So if “deciding” rather than “sliding” is the key issue before couples cohabit, then the dividing line between couples who do better or worse in their subsequent marriage is not going to be whether they ‘cohabited before marriage’. It’s whether they cohabited before making a decision about their future together.

In other words, it’s ‘cohabiting before engagement’ that matters. This is the real cohabitation effect and it is rock solid robust.

Scott and his colleagues have now replicated this effect in four separate US data sets. Couples who “slide” into living together have poorer subsequent relationships in terms of both quality and likelihood of splitting up.

As they say in their first study on the pre-engagement effect, timing is everything. It’s not living together before marriage that matters. It’s living together before you make a commitment.

So don’t shack up just yet … unless you’ve already made a plan about your future together.

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