Over the past decade or two, there has been a sharp increase in young couples cohabitating prior to marriage, or even cohabitating in lieu of marriage. Much of the attitude in our culture towards cohabitation is that it better prepares couples for marriage and helps avoid divorce.
New research out of the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) proves this assumption wrong. A report by IFS’s Dr. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone titled “The Religious Marriage Paradox: Younger Marriage, Less Divorce” shows that those couples who marry without cohabitating have much better odds of avoiding divorce. Dr. Brad Wilcox serves as Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to unpack the report’s findings.
“There’s something about cohabitation which seems to be a risk factor for marriage,” says Dr. Wilcox, “when many adults today think that it’s a good way to prepare for a strong marriage down the road.”
In fact, the data shows that those couples who cohabitate prior to marriage have a 28% higher risk of divorce than those who married before living together. Dr. Wilcox speculates that this is because cohabitation without marriage “engenders a kind of less qualified commitment” that if things don’t work out, a person can always leave the relationship. “That kind of carries over into the marriage,” he warns.
“Getting married in your twenties without cohabiting and without having multiple partners prior to marriage looks like the pathway towards a strong and stable marriage in America today,” concludes Dr. Wilcox. He does note, however, that the data shows couples who marry in their thirties do have similar success as those in their twenties, so long as they have not cohabitated.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Brad Wilcox discuss his report “The Religious Marriage Paradox: Younger Marriage, Less Divorce.”
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. The current philosophy in the U.S. is to live together first and to get married later in life, all in hopes of avoiding divorce, but a new report flies in the face of that thinking. “The Religious Marriage Paradox: Younger Marriage, Less Divorce,” looks at age, religiosity, and cohabitation for clues on when to marry and have the best chance of avoiding divorce.
Well, we’re joined today by one of the report’s authors, Dr. Bradford Wilcox. He’s Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Dr. Brad Wilcox, welcome back to Family Policy Matters.
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Great to be with you here today.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: All right. So, let’s talk first about cohabitation. I’ve heard even Christian parents, unbelievably, endorsing living together for their kids, especially if that parent has had some difficulty in their own marriage. But looking at the research, what do we know about the actual impact of cohabitation on the chances of a long marriage?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Well, I think the surprising thing for a lot of young adults today is that when you cohabit prior to marriage—particularly, to be blunt, with more than one person—your odds of getting divorced are higher, and your odds of having marital problems are also markedly higher as well. So, there’s something about cohabitation which seems to be a risk factor for marriage, when many adults today think that it’s a good way to prepare for a strong marriage down the road.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Right. So, another common misconception is that waiting to get married will decrease the risk of divorce. Does the data back up that theory?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: A lot of young adults today also think that kind of waiting until you’re about 30 to get married is the smart move. So, as we kind of looked at this issue, Lyman Stone and I—Lyman Stone is a demographer now based at McGill University in Canada—what we found was that young adults who got married in their twenties without cohabiting ended up having the most stable marriages. We actually focused on a large sample of young women in this particular research. So, the kind of takeaway here is that what we call direct marriage—that is getting married without cohabiting—seems to be a pathway towards greater marital stability, and this is true for young women getting married in their twenties kind of across the board. So, you could be 23, you could be 28, but if you got married without cohabiting first, your odds of being stably married were markedly higher.
I should also mention, too, on the marital happiness side of the equation, other research done suggests that sort of having fewer sexual partners prior to marriage is linked to happier marriages as well. So, that kind of suggests to me that getting married in your twenties without cohabiting and without having multiple partners prior to marriage looks like the pathway towards a strong and stable marriage in America today. That’s, I think, surprising to a lot of my students here at UVA because they would sort of think that having a variety of partners, cohabiting, waiting until you’re about 30 would kind of maximize your odds for marital success. But our research doesn’t back that assumption up.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Your study was kind of three pronged, right? So, first was cohabitation. Second was age of getting married. The third had to do with the religiosity of the people getting married and their likelihood of divorce. Talk a little bit about that.
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Yeah. So, I think one thing that’s surprising about this particular study is we didn’t find a real strong religious effect, per se, when it came to sort of separating out religion, cohabitation, age at marriage. So, what I’m saying is that for young adults who are getting married in their twenties without cohabiting, if they’re religious, if they’re not religious, they tended to do about as well. Now, what’s important, though, to sort of caveat that is to mention that it was the religiously raised young adults who are much more likely to not cohabit and to marry directly in their twenties. So, what it looked like in this particular study is that being kind of from a community of faith maximized your odds of getting married in your twenties and minimized your odds of cohabiting, both of which were linked to stronger marriages in this research.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Interesting. So, what you’re saying is that as long as you follow the first two principles of not cohabitating and not necessarily waiting later to get married, you can still take advantage of the benefits, whether you’re religious or not.
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Right. Although it’s important to note here that other research, including my own and work by Tyler VanderWeele at Harvard, indicates that in general, for instance, attending religious services regularly reduces your odds of divorce between about 30 and 50 percent. So, there’s a broader body of work that’s been done that indicates that people who are engaged in a religious community are more likely to avoid landing in divorce court.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Gotcha. So, like most things, it’s a good idea to look at this study in context of all the wider studies.
DR. BRAD WILCOX: That’s right, yes.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Good point. What connection is there between—or should there be, I guess—between religiosity and cohabitation? Are we drawing that conclusion appropriately in the Christian community?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Well, we certainly see that cohabitation is less common among religious Americans, but is still—as you just noted earlier—happening in many religious communities and contexts. So, I think there’s a challenge for clergy and for lay leaders when it comes to cohabitation in terms of explaining that what seems like a great idea (in terms of testing the relationship for marriage) actually doesn’t work particularly well. I think that engenders a kind of less qualified commitment, sort of like this idea that “If things don’t work out, I can always leave this relationship,” and then that kind of carries over into the marriage and sort of not being all in to your marriage. Not being all in, in terms of commitment towards your spouse, that’s a real problem.
So, we think that cohabitation tends to sort of reduce commitment. Then, of course too, if you cohabit with more than one partner, it seems to kind of engender a spirit of critical comparison where you’re comparing your spouse to some kind of other partner you’ve lived with. No spouse is perfect and probably on some dimension, your spouse is not going to measure up as well as a previous cohabiting partner, and that can kind of be corrosive for the quality and stability of marriage down the road as well.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What kind of lessons does this have for parents and grandparents? What can we do, as we’re watching these young people navigate a very difficult culture for dating and finding someone to marry? What kind of influence do you think that we can have on this younger generation?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: So, I think the key idea here is you want to encourage them to pursue friendship, and when they think that there is a decent chance of finding a spouse, to encourage them to move forward with that friendship. If they feel like there’s a sense of connection on a variety of levels…they share commitment to a common faith, for instance, a common world view, for instance, and other things that would be the basis for a strong marital friendship. I think then to kind of give them permission to go ahead with marriage, and again, that could be someone who’s 22; that could be someone who’s 28; it could be someone who’s 35, but given that the research that we’re presenting recently sort of suggested that cohabiting is not a good way to prepare for marriage, it’s better to just pursue other opportunities to get to know someone.
Volunteering, for instance, at a Boys & Girls Club or Habitat for Humanity. So, what I am suggesting is kind of doing tough things, difficult things with someone you’re dating to get a sense of their character and their virtues and vices, but not actually moving in with them because I think that tends to raise some questions about commitment, and, also, I think it makes the actual transition to marriage less special, less exceptional.
I was talking to, for instance, a couple in New York City who had not cohabited prior to marriage, and they said that when they got married, everything was kind of magical. They did their first dinner together in the apartment; their first Christmas decorations. They said by contrast their friends who had cohabited prior to marriage were much more like, “Oh, this is kind of ho-hum.” There wasn’t really like a special transition for their friends who had cohabited prior to marriage. So, by not cohabiting, it made that sort of their transition into marriage, crossing that threshold that much more special and exciting, which I think will serve them well long term.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You know, you really are painting a picture that is so much different than the hookup culture, which I think dominates the dating culture right now from what I’ve been reading. Is this like an old-fashioned thing, or is it realistic that young people can go after dating and finding an appropriate spouse in this way?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: That’s a great question, and I think we’re not going to create a courtship culture, a dating culture, that is reminiscent of the way things were when my grandparents were coming of age in the thirties and forties. But I think it is incumbent upon us to try to figure out newer ways to foster relationships in person, to cultivate friendships between men and women who are in their twenties and to encourage them, where they’re sensing some kind of connection with someone, to build on that. In general, if you can sort of steer clear of dating apps, particularly things like Tinder, and rely upon opportunities to get to know people in person—whether it’s in church, or in college, or at work, or at a local nonprofit volunteering—that’s going to give you a much richer portrait of someone than just sort of looking at a series of images on a small screen.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Okay. So, let’s go back to the study. Can you unpack that a little bit? You gave us some generalities on what you found, but how stark are the differences? What kind of stats are we talking about between cohabiting and not, and marrying later and not?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: So, what we see in this kind of research—and we’re looking at kind of like an annual probability of divorce—is that, for instance, someone who’s getting married around 25 would have about a 3.5 percent chance of divorce if they get directly married in their twenties without cohabiting. By contrast, someone who is not religious and has cohabited prior to their relationship has about a sort of a 4.5 percent chance of divorce. So that’s about a 28 percent increased risk for someone who gets married around 30 and has cohabited prior to marriage. So that’s kind of a marked difference here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: It sure is. Good information. I know you already mentioned this a little bit, but what’s the sweet spot, do you think? When is the best time to get married, if you have that choice?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: I think what’s important to stress first of all here is just that the key is to sort of take some time to get to know people and to look for friendship that covers a variety of different bases, and that would be things like your faith, your worldview, but also other things that you share as a couple that would kind of sustain you as friends over the course of your lives. That could be sports. It could be politics. It could be hiking. It could be any number of things that would be the basis for a strong marital friendship. But what we are saying in this research is if you meet that person when you’re 23, there’s no reason you can’t get married when you’re 24 or 25. Or if you meet that person when you’re 27, you can get married when you’re 28 or 29.
So that’s the kind of key takeaway, but, of course, some people are not going to meet that kind of person until they’re 30 or 31 or even 35. So if that’s the case, that’s fine. But I think the key takeaway here is giving people permission to marry someone in their twenties, so long as they’ve kind of done the work to make sure that there’s the basis for a strong marital friendship going forward.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We’re just about out of time for this week. Before we go, Brad Wilcox, where can our listeners go to read your report and follow all your other great research?
DR. BRAD WILCOX: Our report is available at Family Studies, and the title in this case is, “The Religious Marriage Paradox: Younger Marriage, Less Divorce.” If you type that in on Google, you’ll come right up to our website.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thank you so much. Dr. Brad Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
DR. BRAD WILCOX: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me here today.
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