Even as it has become the norm for couples to live together before they get married—cohabitation before a wedding has increased almost 900 percent since the 1960s—op-ed writers and marriage-supporting sociologists still cling to the notion that cohabitation is bad for relationships and that people who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to divorce. There’s already been evidence that what’s called the “cohabitation effect”—the negative impact that living in sin has on an eventual marriage—has faded since the ’80s. But now there’s new research from Arielle Kuperberg, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, revealing the real factor that raises the risk of divorce. According to a paper Kuperberg is publishing in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, it’s not premarital cohabitation that predicts divorce. It’s age.
It’s long been known that there’s a correlation between age at first marriage and divorce—the younger you get married the first time, up until your mid-20s, the more likely your marriage is to break up. Kuperberg looked at data from the National Survey of Family Growth from 1996–2010 and found that the same goes for cohabitators. If you move in together in your teens or early 20s, then you are more at risk for divorce; the reason that couples who move in together young break up “is the same reason age of marriage is a predictor of divorce: people aren’t prepared for those roles,” Kuperberg says.
So why did the idea that cohabitation leads to divorce persist for so long? Part of the problem was that no one had run the numbers using age; they merely compared people who cohabitated with people who married without living together first. The other part of it is that commentators can’t accept the fact that marriage has become what sociologists refer to as a “capstone.” People today marry once they’re done with their education and financially solvent, whereas in the ’50s and ’60s, marriage was a “cornerstone,” which means that people got married before they had accomplished their goals and used that marriage as a solid foundation to go for those goals.
In an essay for the Atlantic last year, Karen Swallow Prior, who has been married for nearly 30 years, made the case for a young “cornerstone” marriage, using her own experience as an example. She got married at 19 and then earned a college degree and two graduate degrees. She believes marriage can be a formative institution, rather than one you enter fully formed. Maybe this was something that worked 30 years ago, but it’s not something that works today. As Kuperberg says, when couples get married young, they actually tend to stop pursuing their education, because they become settled.
Though the divorce rate has gone up slightly since the economy has improved, it is still far lower than it was 20 years ago, in part because the age at first marriage keeps going up. But fewer people are getting married now, too, and we’re at a point where more than 40 percent of children are born to unmarried women. Besides age, another predictor of divorce is when couples have children before even moving in together. According to Kuperberg, couples that had a child pre-cohabitation had a 57 percent higher likelihood of splitting when compared to couples who didn't have a child before moving in together.
As pointed out many times before, strong marriages are becoming somewhat of a class privilege, where wealthy and educated people have better marriages than ever before, and lower down the socioeconomic ladder, people aren’t getting married at all—and this tends to be bad news for their children. To fix that problem, “we would need some combination of economic reform—increasing job security and real wages for low-income men and women alike—and relationship supports, from psychological ones such as counseling to practical ones such as better child care and family policies that relieve stress,” says Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage: A History, in an email. That’s a tall order. It’s much easier to blame living in sin for our social ills.