Premarital Cohabitation, Engagement, and Divorce Risk in First Marriages in the U.S.

New Institute for Family Studies Report

Charlottesville, Virginia, April 26, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Moving in together before being married or engaged is associated with a higher risk of divorce, according to a new embargoed report on premarital cohabitation from the Institute for Family Studies. The report, “What’s the Plan? Cohabitation, Engagement, and Divorce,” is based on a YouGov survey of U.S. couples conducted in 2022. It is authored by Drs. Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades of the University of Denver—two family psychologists with an extensive history of research on cohabitation and relationship development.

“For decades, people have believed that living together before marriage can improve one’s odds of staying together, but there is virtually no evidence to support this belief for marriages in the U. S.,” says Dr. Stanley. “It is important to ask why, and consider what people are missing in holding this common belief.”

The new IFS report confirms previous U.S. research that those who cohabit before marriage are more likely to divorce.

The report also shows that one form of cohabitation is less risky than others—at least when it comes to marital stability: moving in only after being engaged and having clear plans to marry. 

Stanley and Rhoades found:

  • Moving in together before being married or engaged is associated with a higher risk of divorce. Specifically, 34% of marriages ended among those who cohabited before being engaged, compared to 23% of marriages for those who lived together only after being engaged, or already married, and 24% of marriages for those who did not live together at all (the latter two groups are not statistically different in their likelihood of divorcing). In relative terms, the marriages of those who moved in together before being engaged were 48% more likely to end than the marriages of those who only cohabited after being engaged or already married.

  • Reasons for moving in together matter, too. Moving in together primarily to test a relationship is risky. Among those who cohabited before marrying, those who divorced are more likely to say they moved in together for “financial reasons” (40%) or to “test the relationship” (33%), compared to those who say they moved in to spend more time with a partner (23%).

“Ultimately, this report illustrates that even today, with cohabitation becoming the norm for so many men and women, ‘putting a ring on it’ remains an important step for couples who want to have a lasting, stable marriage,” Dr. Stanley said. “As our study found, couples who marry before moving in together, or who at least get engaged before cohabiting, have a lower risk of divorce than those who move in without being engaged or having a clear, public plan to marry.”

Stanley and Rhoades believe too many couples go too long before clarifying what they are doing and where things are headed in their relationship. “It’s not wise to avoid getting clear about expectations, especially about marriage, as a relationship continues,” Stanley added. “That’s how people get trapped.” 


Percent of Marriages Divorced Timing of Cohabitation and Marital Dissolution