One of the world’s leading scholars on premarital cohabitation, relationship quality, and marital longevity has just provided a new update on the current research. Professor Scott Stanley of the University of Denver explains over at the Institute for Family Studies blog that contrary to what some scholars have been saying over the last decade, “the average increased risk for divorce associated with premarital cohabitation is mostly unchanged over the last 40 years.” He is referring to the long and consistent finding that indicates cohabiting before marriage is actually one of the worst things a couple can do if they desire a life-long marriage. The research on this question is both robust and largely consistent, as demonstrated here, here, here and here.

Stanley explains where the misunderstanding in interpretation is situated, stating that scholars who have downplayed the cohabitation/divorce linkage,

…interpreted this finding in light of experience theories, noting that living together before marriage could give couples a leg up at the very start of marriage because there is less of an adjustment to being married and specifically to living together. But they found this advantage to be short-lived. Other factors related to experience may take over from there, such as how cohabitation can increase acceptance of divorce

It is wholly reasonable that divorce risk would be lower among newlyweds who cohabited prior to marriage, but this means very little. Such couples have merely demonstrated they can get along for months at a time, have worked through the typical domestic disagreements and know each other’s quirks.

But as Stanley, and other scholars point out, that “benefit” is short-lived and does not extend into the later years of marriage, where it really counts. This is because couples who live together without the benefit of the permanence and clarity of marriage tend to learn to negotiate their relationships in more manipulative, less healthy ways. Their relationship, without the clarity and definition of clear and publicly articulated wedding vows, tends to be more subjective with each member having a different appraisal of the actual level of commitment between them. This is what one leading scholar of cohabitation meant when he described such relationships as “suffused with ambiguity.” Building a domestic relationship on the clearly defined foundation of marriage makes a world of difference in relationship happiness and longevity.

For all you curious family research nerds, Stanley goes into some very interesting minutiae explaining the mistakes various scholars have made in interpreting the data on the relationship between cohabitation and increased risk of divorce over the last couple of years. This new piece by Stanley is an expansion of a piece he wrote in 2018 with his colleague Galena Rhoades.

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