Living together doesn’t lead to divorce, UNCG researcher says

If you lived together before marriage, you might not be on a fast track to divorce after all.

A UNC Greensboro professor has found that there is little difference in divorce rates between couples who moved in together before they were married and those who married straightaway.

“Co-habitation doesn’t cause divorce,” said Arielle Kuperberg, an assistant professor of sociology at UNCG, whose study will be published next month by the Journal of Marriage and Family. “Previous research was measuring it the wrong way.”

The conventional wisdom has long been that living together leads to divorce. Research into marriage and divorce during the past three decades has reported that:

• Couples who lived together before marriage had about a 40 percent higher chance of divorce than those who went directly into marriage.

• Divorce rates were highest among couples who married young regardless of whether they lived together.

Kuperberg, while doing her graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, said she thought researchers were overstating the risk of divorce because their measurements were skewed.

Researchers were comparing both groups – women who moved in with a partner before marriage and women who went straight into marriage – at the age they got married.

As Kuperberg notes, women who live with a partner before marriage are about two years younger on average than women who go straight into marriage.

Also, she said, married couples and couples who live together aren’t that different. They inhabit the same space, and they share the bills and housework. Unmarried couples are serving what she terms a “marriage apprenticeship.”

So it makes more sense, Kuperberg said, to compare divorce rates among women by the age of what she calls “co-residence” – when a woman starts living together with a partner whether she’s married or not.

That two-year difference, as Kuperberg’s research shows, had inflated the gap in divorce rates between the two groups.

When Kuperberg compared the two groups by the age when co-residence began, “I found no significant difference in divorce rates,” she said.

Kuperberg said she has been working sporadically on this topic since she was studying for her doctorate. She presented an early version of her findings at a national conference in 2008 and included that data in her dissertation two years later.

She finished the study after she started working at UNCG in 2010.

Kuperberg’s study reflects something other researchers have pinpointed: If you want to cut your chance of divorce, wait to get married.

About half of all women who marry or start living together around age 18 are divorced within 10 years. For women who pair up in their mid-20s or later, the divorce rates drop to about 25 percent.

Looking more carefully at these numbers is important, Kuperberg said. Co-habitation before marriage has grown ninefold since the 1960s, and two-thirds of new marriages involve couples who lived together first.

“It’s widely believed that co-habitation causes divorce,” Kuperberg said. “Maybe this will reassure people that they’re not more likely to get divorced” if they live together first.

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