Heartbreak of Cohabitation Ends in Divorce : Couples: Cohabitation is not always a test ground for a permanent marriage, but a spawning place for quick divorce.


They met at a party in that corny, some-enchanted-evening, across-a-crowded-room kind of way, she recalls fondly, even now.

Sixteen months later, they moved in together. Six months later, they married. Six years later, they separated and will divorce.

“There might have been a better chance of us staying together if we had just gotten married,” says Jane, a 27-year-old Baltimore County office manager who asked that her real name not be used. “The six months we lived together were pure heaven, and I had that to compare our marriage to. I knew different. I knew he was capable of more.


“We lived together to find out if it would work, and it still didn’t work. When you’re living together, you try harder because it’s easier (for your partner) to walk out. But once you get married, it’s like all of a sudden, you relax.”

Living together before tying the knot, an increasingly common pattern that many assumed would boost the chances of succeeding at marriage, instead turns out to be a bane rather than a boon if what you want is a long-lasting marriage, recent research shows.

Several studies have found that couples who live together first tend also to get divorced first. University of Wisconsin researchers report that 38% of couples who lived together before they married were divorced within 10 years, compared with 27% of couples who married without cohabiting first.

The finding--which follows a smaller, 1987 study that found an 80% higher divorce rate among couples who had lived together compared to those who hadn’t--surprised many experts who assumed that living together helped iron out potential marital problems and thus lessens the chances of divorce down the road.

‘Different Values’

“I think people who cohabit have a different set of values, values that carry with (them) an ethic that relationships are breakable if they’re not personally satisfying. So they’re more likely to resort to a divorce,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has collaborated on studies with the University of Wisconsin researchers.

“People who don’t cohabit have more traditional values than people who do. They’re people who won’t resort to divorce; they believe in the permanence of relationships.”

The Wisconsin researchers, Larry L. Bumpass and James Sweet, drew their conclusions from an analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households, which in 1987 and 1988 interviewed 13,017 people about marriage and cohabitation.

“The findings were surprising,” says Geoffrey Greif, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “People had believed that living together prenuptially was a sort of protection against the old myth that you got a lot of surprises after you got married.”

But he and other experts say that it is not the act of living together prenuptially that somehow leads to an eventual divorce. Rather, they say, a different kind of person chooses to cohabit rather than marry--and it’s the kind of person perhaps more likely to call it quits than to stay in a less-than-satisfying marriage.

“The study speaks to the fact that you have a different population of people who live together,” says Greif. “They tend to be more independently minded, people who are, properly, self-protective, probably tend to believe they have a right to happiness. And when things are not going well, they’re more likely to end the relationship.”

The findings, sociologists say, are further evidence of the evolving nature of marriage and relationships. Economics, feminism, changing sexual attitudes, increased emphasis on “me” versus “we”--these have all contributed to an altered configuration of how we live, whom we live with and under what kind of circumstances.

“With the increasing economic status of women, there’s less reason to marry,” Cherlin says. “Second, there is a greater acceptance of sex outside of marriage. And third, there are changing values--there’s an increased emphasis on personal satisfaction in intimate relationships, less emphasis on working together.”

While marriage is an institution being challenged by alternative arrangements, it is too early to sound the death knell, he says.

“Despite the emphasis on personal satisfaction, we still believe in marriage. We still value the stability that formal marriage brings us, the public announcement that we want to stay together the rest of our lives. And most of us still think children should be raised in a marriage,” he says. “Most people still want to get married, but most people won’t condemn someone who isn’t married.”

First Step

And cohabiting increasingly is viewed as a natural first step in the direction of marriage.

“For most people cohabitation is still more or less a trial marriage,” Cherlin says. “About half of cohabiting relationships end in a year, either with the couple getting married or breaking up. It’s not a lifelong relationship.”

Living together has most prominently become a part of divorce. When divorced people remarry today, nearly 60% of them will live together first, researchers have found.

Carol, a 45-year-old Baltimore woman who asked that her name not be used, lived with her second husband before they married “because you don’t see all the warts and scars in brief encounters over the weekend or overnight.”

They lived together for six months, married, but ended up divorcing four years later. Incidentally, she didn’t live with her first husband before their marriage, which lasted 11 years.

(There are no statistics yet available comparing the durability of second marriages that are preceded by cohabitation with those where the couple did not live together.)

“I really don’t have all the answers,” Carol says of what effect living together had on their subsequent marriage. “We bought a house while we were living together, and the kids were in school, and it was kind of like you make all these financial commitments, how do you back out of it now? It was almost like it was too difficult to go backward.

“You begin to make commitments, and you’re moving in a certain track,” she says, “and it’s easier to keep on going that way rather than backpedal.”