Surprise, Surprise: Cohabiting Increases Chances of Divorce (Who Knew?)

A young woman I am counseling about her upcoming marriage was reduced to tears. She was upset that her family members wouldn’t support her engagement to her fiancé. Why wouldn’t they? Because she isn’t living together with him first.


So I was delighted to find, in the Wall Street Journal this month, an article highlighting the pitfalls of cohabitation, something I also did in my recent book on dating. The utter failure of cohabitation to prepare anyone for marriage, much less to grant happiness, is so well-documented and so well-ignored, that simply hearing the point made in some medium is a breath of fresh air. One can hope that such news will at least give plenty of single people pause about their practices.


The WSJ title and subtitle say it all: “Too Risky to Wed in Your 20s? Not if You Avoid Cohabiting First: Research shows that marrying young without ever having lived together with a partner makes for some of the lowest divorce rates.” Surprising news? It shouldn’t be.


The research comes from W. Bradford Wilcox, who was the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a sociologist whose work I have followed for some time. My previous book, enGendered, amply quoted Wilcox, because he was willing to point out the counter-cultural lessons shining out like spotlights from well-conducted studies.


photo by Nick Leaver

Wilcox’ books and articles make a number of surprising facts clear. Sociological research shows, for example, that a man’s emotional involvement in a marriage matters far more to a wife’s happiness than his participation in household labor, the presence of children, or even perceptions of equality; that emotional inti­macy is one of the best barometers of marital happiness; that wives of conservative Christians report higher levels of appreciation, affection, understanding, and time spent together in their marriages; that churchgoing conservative Protestant men register the lowest rates of domestic violence of any group in American households; and that, viewed from many angles, gender matters in relationship. (Each of these played a role in the reality enGendered relayed.)


Once again, Wilcox (with Lyman Stone) has something to say that fits well with other research but still sounds surprising, given our apparently plugged up ears: That if you want a lasting, high quality, fulfilling marriage, don’t cohabit with people first.


The trend these days is to wait to get married (average age now for American women is 29, for men 30, and higher for those with college degrees). It is thought that with maturity in age a better decision and a better judgment of your partner’s success prospects ensues. So, what do you do in the meantime? You live with boyfriends and girlfriends with whom commitment is ambiguous. You cohabit.


So the family of this young woman I am meeting with are certain that she is too young to make an informed decision about marriage. She should “try it out” first. Never mind that their own lives speak little wisdom on the matter of relationships. They reason that, as Enoch recently wondered in our promotional video, it only makes sense to test the living arrangement first. That is how you see if you are compatible. Their message to this young woman is that, not doing that, her relationship will end in disaster.


That’s not what I see. And it is not what I am telling her. I see the foundation that they are building in knowing each other before giving their bodies in commitment. They see that there are some things too valuable to practice with. They realize that living together before committing for life devalues both their bodies. It cheapens the love they can share because the gift of themselves is so valuable. Cohabiting before full commitment is like scattering diamonds among children’s toys. And if it doesn’t work out—and none of us know whether we will actually marry before the moment we say “I do” to one another—we have done each other great harm.  If you attach yourself to someone and then tear away, you leave a piece of yourself behind. Some of you is torn from you. You enter the next relationship a little more ripped up and lacking.


No, this young woman and her husband-to-be are just fine. They’re doing it right. They are telling each other how valuable each is.


Thanks for the encouragement, Brad.

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