The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Persistent Problems of Premarital Cohabitation


Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson


In greater numbers than ever, young American couples continue to fall for the bait-and-switch of premarital cohabitation.

Summarizing data from the National Survey of Family Growth, a government report released in February indicates that the percentage of women ages 35 to 39 who had ever cohabited doubled in fifteen years: from 30 percent in 1987 to 61 percent in 2002. It also reveals that more than half of all women, ages 19 to 44, who married between 1990 and 1994 were living with their grooms before their wedding day, and that by 2001, the majority of out-of-wedlock births (52 percent) were to cohabiting couples, up from 33 percent in the early 1980s.

Looking specifically at data from 2002, the report indicates that among ever-married Americans, ages 15 to 44, 48 percent of women and 55 percent of men cohabited before tying the knot. However, among ever-married women in this age group, those who report that religion is very important to them (61 percent), those with a college degree (55 percent), and those who were living with their married mother and father at age 14 (54 percent) were most likely to have married in the traditional way and move in with their grooms after the wedding.

Perhaps the report’s most significant finding: cohabitation reduces the likelihood that a marriage will last ten years, and significantly so for men. Men and women who cohabit before marriage face about the same probabilities of celebrating their tenth anniversary as do men and women who never finished high school. However, if cohabitants are engaged when they first move in together, their probabilities of marital success, according to the data, become very similar to those who do not cohabit before marriage. The report does not specify the percentage of cohabiting women who actually have a ring and a wedding date. That number would be helpful in interpreting the data, as a small percentage of cohabitants that are engaged would confirm that cohabitation remains unfriendly to the kind of commitments that makes marriages last.

The report includes other data that make a similar point: men who won’t commit to a woman are also less likely to commit to an employer. In the 2002 descriptive statistics, only 8 percent of married women had husbands who were out of work compared to 15 percent of cohabiting women whose live-in boyfriends were out of work.

(Paula Y. Goodwin, William D. Mosher, and Anjani Chandra, “Marriage and Cohabitation in the United States: A Statistical Portrait Based on Cycle 6 [2002] of the National Survey of Family Growth,” Vital Health Statistics, Series 23, No. 28, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 2010.)

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