Two of the world’s leading scholars on the harmful impact of cohabitation on relational health and marital success – Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades, both of the University of Denver – have published an important new report expanding upon previous research.
Scholar have long known, and there is surprisingly very little disagreement among them, that cohabiting relationships are associated with markedly higher rates of marital divorce. Something about the cohabiting experience tends to chip away at the likelihood of success in marriage.
These scholars explain in this new report that “for decades in the U.S., living together before marriage has been associated with greater odds of divorce and/or lower relationship quality in marriage, and not just in a few isolated studies.” Much of it has to do with the nature of the cohabiting relationship itself.
They contend that the experience of “cohabitation changes how people think about marriage and divorce.” It changes their attitudes about marriage and lessens their aversion to breaking up. It changes how the couple interacts and negotiates with each other. “In other words,” Stanley and Rhoades observe, “the experience can change a person.”
This is striking when 50 to 65% of Americans believe cohabiting before marriage will improve their odds of relational success before and after marriage. And a remarkable 70% of couples marrying today have some history of pre-marital cohabitation. This chart tells a very troubling story about the path most couples are taking to the altar of late.
So why are greater odds of divorce and unhealthy relationships related to cohabitation?
First, cohabitation leads to less healthy, enduring relationships because it is an intentional holding back of commitment. That is not what builds a good future for a couple.
Stanley and Rhoades refer to cohabitation as a “maybe I do” type of relationship where both partners typically have different expectations of the relationship and neither have really committed to anything definite. She is typically more hopeful than he that living together will lead to marriage. Therefore, she is holding out false hope for something that is not likely to happen.
Second, there is no real assertive declaration from the couple about the relationship itself. Cohabiting couples just tend to slide into living together, rather than deliberate deciding.
This makes the relationship resemble “live-in dating” more than even a “road-test for marriage” because of the relational ambiguity and lack of any real intention. These two scholars have termed this sliding v. deciding. These experts explain, “cohabitation and transitions into it are generally ambiguous unless further defined by signals about commitment.” And the great majority of cohabiting couples clearly slide, rather than decide, into shaking up.
Stanley and Rhoades hold, “Many who marry will have cohabited with multiple partners beforehand, and research shows this is associated with worse odds of a marriage succeeding.” They add, “More cohabitation experience will often also mean more experience with relationships ending, which can lower barriers to divorce.”
Thus, these leading scholars clearly state, “Don’t believe the hype that living together before marriage will improve your odds,” adding, “there is virtually no evidence to support the belief that living together before marriage can improve the odds of marital stability.”
Most couples marrying today want their marriage to last a lifetime. Research tells us clearly that one of the leading factors toward achieving that important life goal is to avoid premarital cohabitation altogether. It is no small thing to see leading research from top academic scholars supporting God’s plan for marriage and sexuality.
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