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Divorce Statistics: Does Cohabitation Lead to Divorce?

Gabrielle Applebury
couple having an argument

When you look at divorce statistics and living together, a variety of factors come into play. All around the world the connection between cohabitation and divorce have a unique relationship that is connected to the country's culture, social norms, and divorce laws.

Divorce Rates for Cohabitating Couples

In a study of 16 countries, researchers noted that the relationship between cohabitating and marriage is not necessarily a direct one, but that there are many factors that impact why a couple opts to divorce regardless if they were cohabitating before marriage or not. The age group examined in this study was those ages 15 to 49 years old. Some factors that impact whether a couple will divorce include divorce laws, cultural acceptance of divorce, and societal acceptance of cohabitation without marriage. Key findings include:

  • 10 percent more of adult children of parents who divorced versus remained married tended to begin their relationships with cohabitation before marriage.
  • In Sweden, Norway, and France about 75 percent of couples cohabitated prior to getting married with about half ending in divorce.
  • Over 75 percent of those cohabitating were not previously married in the majority of the countries studied.
  • In Sweden, cohabitating amongst younger couples was more popular (around 70 percent), but around age 34 cohabitation without marriage declined to about 15 percent. Divorce rate in Sweden did increase, but that was immediately following a more relaxed approach to divorce laws.

Factors Impacting Divorce Around the World

In the international study mentioned above, the findings did not illustrate a direct relationship between cohabitating before marriage and getting a divorce later on. The most important risk factors for a divorce were cultural acceptance of divorce, if the couple's parents were divorced during their childhood, and marrying at a young age. Other findings included:

  • An increase divorce rate preceded the increase in cohabitation rates in all 16 countries.
  • Divorce rates tended to rise as divorce laws shifted in the 1970s and 1980s throughout the countries studied.
  • Parents divorcing creates a high risk factor for their children to eventually divorce regardless of cohabitation.
  • Cohabitation is more common amongst those who were not previously married versus those who were divorced.
  • In countries where couples married young, divorce rates were higher than those who married at an older age. These divorced young women tended to cohabitate with their next partners instead of marrying.
Young parents arguing

Divorce and Age at Time of Marriage

According to research, marrying in your teens puts you at a higher risk for getting divorced, but marrying in your late 30s can also put you at a heightened risk for divorce. Other findings include:

  • Couples who marry in their mid twenties are 50 percent less likely to divorce compared to those who get married at age 20.
  • Those who marry in their mid 30s have a five percent higher chance of getting divorced per year at the age they got married.
  • Each year of marriage before the age of 32 reduces the couple's risk of getting a divorce by 1 1 percent.

This study illustrated that those age 25 to 32 currently have the lowest risk for divorce in the United States, and although it is not totally clear as to why, maturity, financial stability, and relational acumen seem to have the largest influence.

Cohabitation and Seniors

Couples aged 50 and older are living together in greater numbers than ever. According to Forbes.com, more than 1.8 million Americans in that age group are cohabiting. Ninety percent of these people have been widowed or divorced, or are separated from their spouse. Reasons may include these factors:

  • Older Americans may choose to live together instead of marrying to avoid taking a cut in their Social Security payments or the survivor's annuity they receive from a former spouse's employer.
  • Concerns about their estate not passing to their children if they remarry can also play a part in the decision to live together.
  • For other seniors, they may decide to live with a partner for the same kinds of personal reasons that younger people do. They may not wish to marry or remarry to avoid the possibility of getting a divorce, to keep debt separate, or simply because they don't believe in marriage.

Sliding Versus Deciding

The concept sliding vs deciding refers to how couples commit to each other in their relationship. Couples either "slide" into a convenient next step or commit because of the inconvenience of breaking up, versus couples who plan on being together and evaluate their compatibility before moving on to higher levels of commitment. In a study of 1,300 individuals in opposite-sex relationships in the United States:

  • 70 percent of the sample couples lived together before they got married. Cohabitating before marriage in the United States averages around 70 to 75 percent, which the study reflects.
  • About 40 percent of the sample partners cohabitated with previous partners.
  • Those in this 40 percent who went on to marry subsequent partners who they cohabitated with prior to marriage reported lower levels of marital quality.

The majority of couples who cohabitated before marriage noted "it just happened" as the response to why they moved into together, which indicates more of a "slide" into commitment, instead of discussing future plans and "deciding" that they were the best fit for each other. These couples reported lower levels of marital satisfaction later on in the study. Couples who planned and decided to move in together prior to marriage because they shared a similar commitment level and future goals reported higher marital satisfaction.

The Cohabitation Effect

In another study conducted by the same researchers who explored the "sliding versus deciding" concept, they took a look at 1,050 married men and women ages 18 to 34 years old. They found that:

  • 43 percent of study participants who cohabitated before engagement reported lower marital satisfaction and were more likely to divorce than the approximately 16 percent who cohabitated after getting engaged.
  • 18.7 percent of those who cohabitated before getting engaged have suggested divorce at some point in their marriage compared to 10.2 percent of those who did not live together before marriage.
  • 12.3 percent of those who lived together after engagement have brought up divorce at some point in their marriage.

This study's most significant finding is that living together prior to engagement has the highest risk factor for divorce, while living together after getting engaged or after getting married does not have a statistically significant impact on their divorce potential. This may indicate that couples who opted to live together prior to engagement may have slid into this commitment level, instead of making sure that they shared common goals for their future as a couple, thus putting them at higher risk for marital dissatisfaction and potentially divorce.

Divorce Rates for Cohabitating Same-Sex Couples Versus Opposite Sex Couples

The 2019 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement reports that there are about 543,000 same-sex married couple households and 469,000 same-sex couples who are cohabitating. Other stats include:

  • Research indicates that cohabitating but unmarried same sex couples had similar break up rates as opposite-sex couples who were between the ages of 26 to 32.
  • Within 4.5 years, the study notes that 27 percent of same-sex couples and 28 percent of opposite-sex couples who were cohabitating but not married ended their relationship.
  • Another study notes that about 61 percent of same sex couples have married as of 2017 and about one percent of them will divorce.

How Long After Marrying do Couples Divorce?

On average, marriages tend to last around eight years. Risk factors for divorce include intimate partner violence, substance abuse, infidelity, and lack of trust. Inability to connect, enduring high levels of stress, and having toddlers also can increase marital discord, and eventually lead to a divorce.

Marriage After Living Together

For couples who decide to move in together, just over half of them marry within five years. Within that same time period, 40 percent of couples split up. Roughly 10 percent of them continue to live together without being married.

Understanding Cohabitation and Marital Success

People who decide to live together may do so with the expectation that it will help them determine whether they will have a successful marriage with their partner. People who decide to live with a partner may also be more likely to divorce if they are unhappy with the relationship after taking vows, since they may have less conservative views of marriage. Research indicates conflicting results regarding whether cohabitation before marriage increases chances of a later divorce if the couple marries. These studies illustrate that the connection between pre-marital cohabitation and divorce are not a direct one, but instead a complex intermingling of various factors.

Divorce Statistics: Does Cohabitation Lead to Divorce?