Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Marriage Is In. Living Together Is Stupid!

February 15, 1999

Do you agree or disagree with this statement? "It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along."

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that 60 percent high school senior boys and 50 percent of senior girls agreed with that statement in a survey taken between 1991 and 1995. Between 1976 and 1980 the percentages were 45 percent for young men and 30% for young women.

It sounds reasonable doesn't it? Living together tests your compatibility - the bad relationships are weeded out and those who eventually get married will have stronger marriages. Too bad it is not true.

By 1998, there were 4,236,000 unmarried couples in the United States, up from 439,000 in 1960. Half of all the brides going down the aisle aren't blushing. More than half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation.

In a new study, "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Papenoe from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, reviewed over 50 studies concerning the effects of living together on marriage and family life. Here are some of their findings.

  • There is nothing to show that cohabiting leads to a stronger marriage. Studies show that cohabiting before marriage makes divorce more likely. Couples who live together before marriage are about 48 percent more likely to divorce than those who don't. That is very poor evidence that living together is more effective than traditional courtships in helping couples prepare for marriage or avoid divorce.

  • Living together increases the risk for domestic violence. A University of Chicago sociologist, Linda Waite, found that the domestic violence rate for live-ins is almost double that of married couples.
  • Unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness and greater levels of depression. Their relationships are not stable, especially if there are children. There are two exceptions - engaged couples who move in together for a short period of time prior to their marriage and elderly couples who cohabit for economic and social reasons.

  • People who cohabit are much more likely to enter unsuccessful cohabiting relationships again. The more a person cohabits, the more likely the person is to embrace cohabiting as a lifestyle. It is wrong to assume individuals will learn how to have a good relationship by cohabiting. The longer people live together without marriage, the more likely it is that they'll never marry.
  • Cohabiting parents break up at a much higher rate than married parents, and the economic and emotional effects of the breakup can be devastating on children. In 1997, 36 percent of all unmarried-couple households included a child less than 18, up from 21 percent in 1987. Three quarters of the children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, but only about a third of the children born to married parents face a similar fate.

In the last decade, the proportion of cohabiting mothers who eventually married a child's father declined to 44 percent from 57 percent. Also, the great majority of children in unmarried couple households were not born from the current relationship, but typically, from a previous union by one of the partners, usually the mother.

One study in Britain found that children living with a cohabiting couple are 20 times more likely to be the subject of child abuse. In cases in which the child is living with a mother and a man who is not the father, the risk increases 33 times.

So high school seniors, what do you say now? Do you care to have a marriage that lasts? Do you want to be happy? Do you want secure, well-adjusted children who aren't torn apart by a married or unmarried household splitting apart? Do you want a respectful relationship free of abuse for yourself and your future children? Over 4 million people can be wrong. Dead wrong.

Marriage is in. Living together is stupid!