A headline in today’s New York Times made my eyes bug out in disbelief: ”Living Together First Doesn’t Make Marriage Last, Study Finds.” And right up top the piece explains that cohabitation before marriage is actually associated with weaker marital staying power. It goes against basic common sense: Living together, and getting to know each other better, before walking the aisle must be for the good of the relationship — or, in the very least, it certainly can’t be bad, right?
The Times frames its piece around that assumption — and it’s a great way to get people to read beyond the headline – but the truth, much to my surprise, is past studies have arrived at the same counter intuitive conclusion. The difference with this latest study, which is bigger and better than the ones that have come before, is that it found a far smaller disparity in marital outcomes. In fact, it’s small enough that USA Today took a slightly different (and more accurate) tack with its headline, “Report: Cohabiting has little effect on couples’ success in marriage.” Reporter Sharon Jayson gives a matter-of-fact explanation: “Living together before marriage won’t doom your union to failure; in fact, it doesn’t seem to make much difference in the long term … .”
Cohabiting before marriage lowered a couple’s likelihood of sticking it out for at least a decade by six percentage points — a difference that is “not huge,” as a coauthor of the study put it. On a similar note, Pamela Smock, a sociologist who studies cohabitation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told USA Today: “On the basis of these numbers, there is not a negative effect of cohabitation on marriages, plain and simple.” If there’s any new wisdom to be gleaned from this report, I suspect it’s that you’re better off following your own heart than any supposed make-or-break marital rules.