Contact: Virginia Rutter
Framingham State University Sociology
Want to know what predicts divorce? Let’s start with what does not.
For more than 20 years, researchers have reported that premarital cohabitation is associated with an elevated risk of divorce. Yet these findings have failed to deter young people from “shacking up.” According to a briefing report presented today to the Council on Contemporary Families, cohabitation has increased by more than 900 percent in the past 50 years. Author Arielle Kuperberg, a sociologist at UNC-Greensboro, notes that “Today 70 percent of women aged 30 to 34 have cohabited with a male partner, and two-thirds of new marriages take place between couples who have already lived together for an average of 31 months.”
In “Does Premarital Cohabitation Increase Your Risk for Divorce?” Kuperberg sees no need for panic. Her new research finds that previous studies have over-stated the divorce risk from premarital cohabitation by ignoring how old the individuals are when they move in together. It turns out that the age when people move in together is a much more important factor than whether or not they have taken out a marriage license.
On average, she reports, cohabitors begin living together at an earlier age than couples who marry directly. But “when couples are compared by the age at which they move in together and start taking on the roles associated with marriage, there is no difference in divorce rates between couples that lived together before marriage and those that didn’t.”
Kuperberg states that premarital cohabitation has very little, if any, impact on a couple’s chance of divorce. Rather, “early entry into marriage or cohabitation, especially prior to age 23, is the critical risk factor.” The full text of Kuperberg’s briefing report is available here and commentaries on the report are available here.
CCF Commentators: delay, protect, and look for more change in the future
Cornell University sociologist Sharon Sassler agrees that it is wrong to claim that premarital cohabitation causes divorce, but she suggests that “Perhaps more important is how long one is involved with a romantic partner before moving in together.” Sassler’s forthcoming research demonstrates that individuals without a college degree tend to move in together in less than half the time that college-educated couples take to make such a decision, probably because of their greater financial need to split living expenses. But this gives them less time to get to know their partner, making it more possible that they will end up in a bad match that will not stand the test of time.
Sociologist Kristi Williams (The Ohio State University) notes that an unintended pregnancy may lead a couple to move in together or to marry. Either way, such relationships are much more likely to dissolve than relationships that are not formed under the pressure of an unplanned pregnancy. For that reason, she suggests that the best way to lay the groundwork for healthy marriages is to make sure that couples do not end up dealing with an unintended pregnancy.
“Given that premarital sex has been nearly universal in the U.S. for more than 40 years and that early marriage poses divorce risks, it is vital to provide teens and young adults with access to effective contraceptives and family planning services.” Yet nine states currently restrict abortion providers or affiliated organizations like Planned Parenthood from receiving public funds, Williams finds, while “thirteen states restrict access to emergency contraception. Challenges to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act are currently pending in 80 cases.” Williams’ research suggests that such restrictions may promote more divorce in the long run.
Economist Evelyn Lehrer (University of Illinois-Chicago) argues that when it comes to marriage, there are benefits to waiting quite a while past age 23, the age at which Kuperberg suggests moving in or marrying may become less risky. Lehrer’s analysis of longitudinal data shows that every year a woman delays marriage, right up until her early 30s, decreases her chance of divorce. And contrary to earlier research, she finds that even delaying marriage well past the average age does not raise the risk of divorce. People who marry later than average are more likely to enter “unconventional” matches, which have long been known to pose challenges to partners, but these challenges are outweighed by the couple’s greater maturity.
Historian Stephanie Coontz (The Evergreen State College) notes that all the studies mentioned in the report and the commentaries reveal how rapidly the dynamics of relationships are changing. She points out that what Sassler found to be a dangerously “short” transition between when less-educated couples meet and when they move in together was once the norm for all couples: In the 1950s, the average length of time a couple dated before marrying was just six months.
Coontz suggests that as cohabitation becomes more common and marriage is less bound by predetermined gender roles, “the United States may well follow the same pattern that researchers found in Australia. In that country, in the 1940s and 1950s, premarital cohabitation significantly increased the risk of divorce. But the added divorce risk declined each year for marriages contracted up to 1988 and then it reversed, so that since then premarital cohabitation has reduced the risk of separation.” One rule that has already been reversed in the past 40 years, Coontz notes, is the relationship between a woman’s educational level and her chance of being married. “Who knows what other old rules may be shattered in the next few years?”
For Further Information
Arielle Kuperberg, 2014. Does Premarital Cohabitation Raise Your Risk of Divorce? A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families. March 10.
Sharon Sassler, Evelyn Lehrer, Stephanie Coontz, and Kristi Williams, 2014. Council on Contemporary Families Expert Commentaries on Kuperberg’s “Does Premarital Cohabitation Raise Your Risk for Divorce?” March 10.
Arielle Kuperberg, Assistant Professor of Sociology, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sharon Sassler, Professor, Department of Policy Analysis & Management, Cornell University; Sharon.Sassler@Cornell.Edu.
Kristi Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology, The Ohio State University, email@example.com
Evelyn Lehrer, Professor, Department of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago; firstname.lastname@example.org; 646-226-8062.
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.
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