'Shacking Up' Leads To Divorce? Maybe Not

Conventional wisdom has suggested that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced. Sociology professor Arielle Kuperberg discusses research challenging that assumption.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. For years now, social scientists, and maybe even your mom, have argued that couples should not live together before marriage. The argument has been that living together before marriage increases the likelihood of divorce. But it may be time to call mom and tell her, in a nice way, that she was wrong. A new study says there is no link between living together before marriage and divorcing after. In fact, the more relevant factors are age and the level of education.

The Council on Contemporary Families released a study this week. Professor Arielle Kuperberg is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and she produced the research. And she is with us now. Welcome, Professor Kuperberg. Thanks so much for joining us.

ARIELLE KUPERBERG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Why do we think this? I mean, this is the kind of thing that has not just been repeated by parents, let's say, for a very long time, but also as we've said, social scientists have held this out as truth. Why do we think this?

KUPERBERG: Yeah. Previous research has found that because they've always compared people by the age at which they got married. And when you compare people by the age at which they got married, it looks like people who live together have a higher rate of divorce. But what I'm arguing in my research is that they're not comparing it the right way. They should be comparing it by when they settle down and start moving in together. And when you do that, the effect of divorce disappears. There's no effect of cohabitation on divorce.

MARTIN: So the relevant factor is at what age did you move in together.

KUPERBERG: Yes. Yeah, at what age did you move in together. And they weren't accounting for the age at which couples were moving in together. And it turns out that whether you get married at that age or not, whenever you move in with the person you eventually marry - if you're younger, you're going to be more likely to get divorced if you marry that person.

MARTIN: What's the dividing line between - at what age - I don't want to say what's the magic cut off because, you know. But what's the age at which the marriage tends to be more stable? If you wait until a certain age, when does the marriage become more stable?

KUPERBERG: Yeah. I would say 23 is kind of that magic age where after 23, waiting longer is not really going to affect your divorce rate at all. But waiting from 18 to 23 is going to have a huge impact on your divorce rate.

MARTIN: Why do we think that is? Why do you think that is?

KUPERBERG: I think it's that couples that settle down with someone when they're that young, they're not really settled in life yet. They're not financially established yet. They may not have the emotional maturity to pick a compatible partner. They may not have their own goals set out. They may not have their career settled.

MARTIN: What about education? This has also become kind of part of the public discussion around education. That people with more education are less likely to divorce now. Is that true?

KUPERBERG: Yes, that is true. And couples with lower levels of education are also more likely to live together before marriage, and they're more likely to settle down at younger ages. So that's one of the reasons couples at younger ages are more likely to divorce is couples that are settling down younger, they're less likely to go to college. And when they're less likely to go to college, they're less likely to have financial stability. So they're more likely to live together before marriage, and they're more likely to get divorced later on.

MARTIN: Are the couples who don't live together before marriage - do they have any defining characteristics? Do they tend to be more religious than the rest...

KUPERBERG: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Of the population or something of that sort?

KUPERBERG: Yeah, they tend to be more religious. They tend to have higher levels of education - very high levels of education. They tend to have very highly educated parents 'cause they're from higher social class backgrounds because part of the reason people put off getting married and they may move together first - one reason is because they want to have a nice wedding. And they want to save up money and sort of build up towards having that nice wedding.

MARTIN: Well, I think that's interesting because I think you're also contradicting some other conventional wisdom because I think the conventional wisdom that a lot of people have around marriage is that people want to try before they buy, if I can put it that way. That people are saying that their - because the divorce rate is so high, that people are moving in together to see whether they are compatible. You know, so do you have some sort of insight on that?

KUPERBERG: Yeah, well, I think cohabiters are kind of made up of two different groups, and these groups overlap to a large degree. But one group is the group of people who are kind of the trial marriage. You know, you don't buy a car without test driving it first. They're testing out the marriage beforehand. And those couples, I think, tend to move more quickly towards marriage. Then there's also couples who are living together because they don't feel financially prepared for marriage. They may be moving in together to save money and to combine their finances. It's kind of ironic now that marriage is more symbolic, people are spending more and more money on these weddings and they have a higher bar they want to meet before they enter into marriage.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind if I ask whether you have any personal experience with this question yourself.

KUPERBERG: Yeah. I could say I lived with my husband before we got married. And my dad told me, you know, it's going to - you know, he warned me that it's going to hurt our marriage and that it hurts marital happiness to live together before marriage. And that - I mean, that didn't really make sense to me. And that's not why I did this study, but it actually was around when I was starting this study. So it's kind of a bonus that I get to be like, your wrong, Dad.

MARTIN: Are you going to call him?

KUPERBERG: I've been sending him all the links to all the news stories.

MARTIN: OK. I will be interested to hear his reaction. Arielle Kuperberg is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WFDD, which is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Professor Kuperberg, thank you so much for joining us.

KUPERBERG: Thank you for having me.

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