Late last month, the Journal of Marriage and Family published a new study with a somewhat foreboding finding: Couples who lived together before marriage had a lower divorce rate in their first year of marriage, but had a higher divorce rate after five years. It supported earlier research linking premarital cohabitation to increased risk of divorce.
But just two weeks later, the Council on Contemporary Families—a nonprofit group at the University of Texas at Austin—published a report that came to the exact opposite conclusion: Premarital cohabitation seemed to make couples less likely to divorce. From the 1950s through 1970, “those who were willing to transgress strong social norms to cohabit … were also more likely to transgress similar social norms about divorce,” wrote the author, Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. But as the rate of premarital cohabitation ballooned to some 70 percent, “its association with divorce faded. In fact, since 2000, premarital cohabitation has actually been associated with a lower rate of divorce, once factors such as religiosity, education, and age at co-residence are accounted for.”
It’s not unheard-of for contemporaneous studies on the same topic to reach opposite conclusions, but it’s somewhat surprising for them to do so after analyzing so much of the same data. Both studies analyzed several cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth, a longitudinal data set of women (and men, starting in 2002) between the ages of 15 and 44, though Kuperberg’s study incorporates some data from another survey as well. And, this isn’t the first time researchers have come to differing conclusions about the implications of premarital cohabitation. The practice has been studied for more than 25 years, and there’s been significant disagreement from the start as to whether premarital cohabitation increases couples’ risk of divorce. Differences in researchers’ methodologies and priorities account for some of that disagreement. But in the curious, still-developing story of whether cohabitation does or doesn’t affect the odds of divorce, subjectivity on the part of researchers and the public may also play a leading role.