Bioethics Blogs

Pre-marital cohabitation endangers your marriage

By Charles Foster

Marriage is not well served by its defenders. The loudest and best reported of them are often fundamentalist bigots. It’s a shame, for marriage has a lot going for it.

Even if you think that marriage is an anachronistic/bourgeois/theologically contaminated institution, you’ll probably agree that the breakdown of marriages is best avoided. Of course incurably dysfunctional marriages should be ended, but most people aspire to enduring relationships, and the wrench of marital dislocation is emotionally and financially traumatic. If there are children, marriage breakup is painful for the parents and can be enduringly damaging for the children. There are, in short and quite uncontroversially, some significant harms associated with the breakdown of marriages.

How can marriage breakdown – and hence those harms – be avoided?

Many, many factors of course contribute to marriage failure. But there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that pre-marital cohabitation decreases the quality of marriage and increases the odds of divorce. A meta-analysis (2010)1 came to the following conclusions:

Marital stability: (16 studies): ‘…premarital cohabitors had significantly lower rates of staying married compare to non-cohabitors…[T]he data suggest that premarital cohabitation is negatively associated with subsequent marital stability…’2

Marital quality: (12 studies): ‘…cohabitation before marriage is modestly negatively associated with subsequent marital quality.’3

Spencer James and Brett Beattie summarized the consensus as follows:

‘….results generally [supported] the proposition that, on average, cohabitors tend to report poorer marital quality and experience greater marital instability than those who move directly into marriage.’4

But why? And are these merely correlations, or is pre-marital cohabitation causative of subsequent problems?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.