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v0.2 of myself was Catholic; subsequent revisions have removed this feature from my code base. In any case, I went through Catholic marriage prep, and was married in the Catholic Church. At the preparation retreat, which is obligatory if one wants to be married in a Catholic Church, they stressed quite strongly that cohabiting (living together before marriage) drastically increased the likelihood of divorce. This would be followed by an appeal to separate, even for a short time, before marriage to "reset" the relationship on good grounds and do things the Catholic way.

The United States Conference of Catholic Biships (USCCB) has a report (An Information Report on New Realities and Pastoral Practices) featuring some claims about this:

  • When cohabitors do marry, they are more at risk for subsequent divorce than those who did not cohabit before marriage. In the United States, the risk of divorce is 50% higher for cohabitors than non-cohabitors. In some western European countries, it is estimated to be 80% higher. (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995; Hall & Zhao, 1995; Bracher, Santow, Morgan & Trussell, 1993; DeMaris & Rao, 1992; Glenn, 1990) [1]
  • When previously married cohabitors marry, their subsequent divorce rate is higher than that of cohabiting couples who have not been previously married. (Wineberg & McCarthy, 1998; Wu, 1995; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989) [2]
  • There is some indication that the divorce rate is higher for people who cohabit for a longer period of time, especially over three years. The data on this are mixed. (Brown & Booth, 1996; Stets,1993; Thomson & Colella, 1991) [3]
  • Cohabitors who marry break up in the earlier years of marriage. Cohabitors and noncohabitors have the same rate of marriage stability if the marriage remains intact over seven years. (Lillard Brien & Waite, 1995; Thomson & Colella, 1991; Bennett, Blanc & Bloom, 1988) [4]
  • Cohabitors who do choose to marry appear to be of lesser risk for later divorce than those cohabitors who choose not to marry would be. They appear to be the best risk of a high risk group. (Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988) [5]

So, fairly well cited claims, but I'm a bit skeptical. There's the obvious personal component, as I no longer espouse the views of Catholicism, but there's a purely skeptical component as well in that the Catholic Church stands to gain support for its teachings if it can show evidence to support their benefits... and lo and behold, they have found evidence to support their teachings.

But this strikes me as quasi-related to evidence that condom distribution, after all, is somehow increasing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. In other words the pope was right.


Questions: So, I'm curious. Is cohabiting increasing the probability that those who move forward from it to marry will divorce? Is any sociological/psychological mechanism known for why this might be? Are there credible sources with views divergent from those above?

From an intuitive point of view, I'd wonder why cohabiting might give couples a period of time to work out potential conflicts that might arise from constant close contact and interaction rather than entering blindly and being surprised/overwhelmed.


Sources (first listed of each bullet):

  • [1] Bumpass & Sweet (1995), The changing character of stepfamilies: implications of cohabitation and nonmarital childbearing. (LINK).
  • [2] Wineberg & McCarthy (1998), Living arrangements after divorce: cohabitation versus remarriage. (LINK)
  • [3] Brown & Booth (1996), Cohabitation Versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality. (LINK)
  • [4] Lillard Brien & Waite (1995), Premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital. (LINK)
  • [5] Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin (1991), The Role of Cohabitation in Declining Rates of Marriage. (LINK)
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    Observation: Cohabitation is incompatible with the religious position of sex only in marriage and thus it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. It used to be that this translated to a higher divorce rate, but as cohabitation became more common that has changed, it's now less likely to lead to divorce (as some of the relationships that previously would have been divorces split up while cohabiting instead.) Comment because I don't remember the source to make a proper answer. Mar 23 at 0:15
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    I'm sure the Catholic take is that co-habitation, itself, is going to cause more divorces, as opposed to the correlation - people less constrained by prohibitions against cohabitating are probably going to similarly be less constrained to stay in an unhappy marriage, simply because they're "supposed to." Mar 24 at 20:31
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    I don't have sufficent evidence to propose it as a an answer but I'd point out that the sort of couples that would force themselves to stay in an unhappy marriage just so they can say they never got divorced are exactly the sort of folks who would refuse to cohabitation. This fact alone may unfairly prejudice results, at least if you consider your goal to end up with a happy marriage people want to be in rather then avoiding divorces just to say they aren't happening.
    – dsollen
    Mar 30 at 18:23
  • Instead of counting the years from marriage to divorce, you could count the years from starting to live together to divorce. So marriage + divorce after 20 years would be same as cohabitation for 10 years, marriage for 10 years, and divorce. Which it really is.
    – gnasher729
    Apr 2 at 18:51

3 Answers 3

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I assume that USCCB are quoting accurately, though I suspect they may also be being selective.

If their hypothesis is that cohabiting couples are more likely to divorce, a reasonable question is what would be the alternative. If it is younger marriage (i.e. living together but not "in sin") then it is well known that those marrying for the first time at a young age are more likely to divorce, and to do so earlier in the marriage.

This page, quoting 2002 US data from the Center for Disease Control, says

Divorce is more likely when women marry at a younger age (48% of brides married before age 18 divorce in 10 years, compared to 24% married at age 25 or later)

So what you need to do to test the proposition would be to compare couples who cohabit at age X and marry at age Y with couples who marry at age X not having previously cohabited and are still married at age Y (you also have the added complication of different ages of the man and woman in the couple). This requires a rather more complicated analysis of the data than that anything quoted above.

Another issue which would affect analysis of the statement "Cohabiting couples more likely to divorce" is to look at cohabiting couples which split up before marriage, and to try to calculate how many divorces might have occurred if they had instead married: I suspect that USCCB may dislike divorce more than they dislike cohabitation.

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    Marrying later does not necessarily correspond with cohabiting. And in current times marrying age 18 or younger is EXTREMELY young. Jul 14, 2011 at 13:17
  • @DJClayworth: True, that's quite young. While the study is from '02, the data is from '95, and asked ~11,000 women. What they don't mention is what percentage of the population fell into that <18 category. This CDC study from '09 (oddly enough collecting data from '02) tells that it's only 6% of women and 2% of men. If we inappropriately mesh the data together, we see that only 2.88% of women fall into this odd category of <18 brides divorcing within ten years. I'm surprised it's as long as ten; it seems like that'd be a prime divorce group.
    – erekalper
    Jul 14, 2011 at 15:32
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    This isn't really an answer to the question. More an extended comment.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 13, 2015 at 2:09
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    "If their hypothesis is that cohabiting couples are more likely to divorce, a reasonable question is what would be the alternative." According to Catholic teachings, the recommended way is a several year romantic relationship with no cohabiting and no sex.
    – marczellm
    Jul 13, 2015 at 13:20
  • @marczellm: My question was not asking what somebody might recommend but what would actually happen. If cohabitation was effectively prohibited then I suspect one result would be earlier marriage, and a consequence of that could be increased divorce or separation.
    – Henry
    Jul 13, 2015 at 13:32
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An article from Pew Research in April 8, 2011 disputes the idea that cohabitation before marriage leads to divorce:

On the topic of cohabitation, everybody knows that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not, because that is what much research has found. But some recent work disputes that conclusion. Now that most couples move in together before they marry, cohabitation may not be as linked to divorce as it was when live-in couples were less common.

The Pew Research Center report on families, released last year, found that 44% of adults (and more than half of 30- to 49-year-olds) say they have cohabited at some point. Nearly two-thirds of adults who ever cohabited (64%) say they thought about it as a step toward marriage. The report also notes a trend toward rising public acceptance of cohabiting couples over the years. Most Americans now say the rise in unmarried couples living together either makes no difference to society (46%) or is good for society (9%).

A paper by Bowling Green State University researchers, using data from the National Survey of Family Growth, concluded that among women who married since the mid-1990s, cohabitation is not tied to heightened risk of divorce. Looking at women who married in the past 15 years, "our work shows that cohabitation no longer influences marital instability," wrote researchers Wendy D. Manning and Jessica A. Cohen in the paper they presented at the population meeting.

Also, in Australia, 78% of couples who marry have lived together beforehand in 2008, rising from 16% in 1975.

A 2003 study "Premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability" by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found:

The old finding that marriages of those who lived together before marrying were at a greater risk of breakdown was also partly attributable to the way in which marriage duration has been measured. We believe that, in the interests of comparing like with like, separation risk should be measured after set periods of the union rather than after set periods of marriage.

The differences in measured outcomes for those from direct and indirect marriages appear to be entirely attributable to other factors.

So far, the evidence suggests that premarital cohabitation has little impact one way or the other [on the chances of any subsequent marriage surviving].

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  • TWo of your quotes both allude or imply there was once evidence that cohabitation negatively affected marriage. I think the answer would feel more complete if you referenced directly that evidence and why you feel it's no longer valid.
    – dsollen
    Mar 30 at 18:20
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There's more at stake than just the marriage itself, but the happiness within the marriage.

There is a common belief that, although a smaller percentage of Americans are now marrying than was the case a few decades ago, those who marry have marriages of higher quality. It seems reasonable that if divorce removes poor marriages from the pool of married couples, and if cohabiting couples’ “trial marriages” deter some bad marriages from forming, then the remaining marriages should be happier on average. The best available evidence on the topic, however, does not support these assumptions. Since 1973, the General Social Survey has periodically asked representative samples of married Americans to rate their marriages as either “very happy,” “pretty happy,” or “not too happy.” As Figure 4 [a graph showing a slow decline in the number of happily married adults] indicates , the percentage of both men and women reporting “very happy” has declined moderately over the past 35 years. This trend has essentially flattened out over the last decade.

http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/Union_11_12_10.pdf

People have remained unhappily married for a long time and I believe the above info is the most telling. There is a correlation between divorce rate and cohabitation. Since 1970 Cohabitation is up and divorce is down. The commonly stated "Half of all marriages end in divorce" was only true in the USA if you got married around 1970.

The better question to ask is, "Do religious people have more satisfying marriages?" that's a subjective question to ask an individual, but I think there might be data.

Anyway, since you mentioned it, I invite you to roll back the changes your codebase before you check out.

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    Thanks. A 1995 study (LINK) seems to disagree with your 1967 study, though. Then again, THIS says that happiness is correlated with religiosity in marriage, at least for Catholics married to Catholics. Also, I've somewhat been checked out and that site is quite unimpressive (since you brought it up, I thought I'd give feedback). It seems targeted at wandering religious "wonderers" who don't care about what's true as much as they do fitting in, being cared about, and filling what they're told is a "god shaped hole."
    – Hendy
    Jul 14, 2011 at 19:37
  • @Hendy, unfortunately jstor.org is down for me (but not everyone else) not sure why. I couldn't even read the link I provided (which is why I didn't try using it to prove anything). I'm glad you at least took the time to check out the Catholics Come Home site - I don't have much of an opinion about it, but it's good to know how you find it lacking. A better way to make a turn around is to read G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy and see if there's anything you haven't figured out yourself in there. Jul 14, 2011 at 20:04
  • I may or may not add that to my LIST, as it's already long... but I do own it.
    – Hendy
    Jul 14, 2011 at 20:06
  • Sounds similar to some of the advice given regarding cohabitation at the prep sessions, namely the argument that cohabitation sometimes leads to marriages because it's easier than the prospect of breaking up with shared possessions, housing, and sometimes kids. Mar 22 at 11:45

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