Age at Coresidence, Premarital Cohabitation, and Marriage Dissolution: 1985-2009

By Kuperberg, Arielle | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Age at Coresidence, Premarital Cohabitation, and Marriage Dissolution: 1985-2009


Kuperberg, Arielle, Journal of Marriage and Family


Rates of cohabitation have risen dramatically in theUnitedStatesoverthepastseveraldecades.A largebodyofresearchcoveringthe1970s-1990s found that marriages that followed cohabitation during those decades had a higher rate of divorce than marriages that began without prior cohabitation (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Lillard, Brien, & Waite, 1995; Phillips & Sweeney, 2005; Teachman, 2003; Woods & Emery, 2002). More recent research has found that for individuals marrying in the 2000s, premarital cohabitation, which had become common, had a smaller or neutral relationship with divorce risk (Manning & Cohen, 2012; Reinhold, 2010).

The relationship found between divorce and cohabitation in earlier decades may have been a causal relationship, resulting from cohabiting couples' ability to leave the relationship at any time without undertaking the legal procedures involved in a divorce. Partners may have become accustomed to this ability to easily leave the coresidential relationship and carried this "individualistic ethic" into their marriage, thereby increasing their divorce risk (Cherlin, 1992, p. 16). Cohabitation has also been found to decrease levels of religiosity (Thornton, Axinn, & Hill, 1992), which could lead to an increase in later likelihood of divorce.

Selection into cohabitation is perhaps a more plausible explanation of the previously found association between cohabitation and increased divorce risk. Couples who did not cohabit with their spouse before marriage (referred to in this article as direct marriers) may represent a more select group that is less divorce prone than couples who did cohabit before marriage (Lillard et al., 1995). Factors that affect selection into cohabitation may have changed over time as it became more common, resulting in the changing relationship between premarital cohabitation and divorce.

One factor that may have influenced the higher divorce rates of premarital cohabitors is the age at which they began their coresidential relationship. Although not an alternative to marriage altogether, cohabitation has to some degree become a relationship that serves as an alternative to early marriage (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Bumpass, Sweet, & Cherlin, 1991; Raley, 2000, p. 20). Extensive previous research has found that younger ages at marriage were associated with higher rates of divorce (Booth & Edwards, 1985; Heaton, 1991; Raley & Bumpass, 2003; South, 1995; Teachman, 2002).

Cohabitation precedes marriage, and there- fore age at coresidence is necessarily lower than age at marriage for couples who cohabited prior to marriage. This younger age at union forma- tion for premarital cohabitors may then explain some of their increased divorce risk when com- pared with direct marriers. Couples in cohabiting relationships take on many, if not most, of the roles associated with marriage, including liv- ing together and running a household together; entrance into marriage among premarital cohab- itors is more of a symbolic transition than a functional transition (Cherlin, 2004). This sym- bolic change may result in some behavioral changes due to couples' shifting expectations of their own roles, the way other people treat that couple due to this symbolic shift, and the added trust that the relationship will endure due to the public nature of a marital commitment, along with barriers external to the relationship that decrease the likelihood of separation (Cher- lin, 2000; Kuperberg, 2012; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Nevertheless, marriage does not seem to result in drastic shifts in behavior; cohabiting individuals who intended to marry their partner had the same levels of relationship quality as already-married individuals (Brown & Booth, 1996) and behaved similarly to recently married individuals who cohabited before marriage in myriad other ways, including work and house- work habits, level of savings and debt, and rates of unhealthy behaviors (Kuperberg, 2010, 2012). …

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