Economists Challenge Notion That
Living Together Before Marriage Leads To Divorce
22, 1999 -- Does cohabitation before marriage make
it more likely or less likely that couples will divorce? Recent
research has found that couples who live together before marrying
are more likely than others to divorce.
economists at the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan
are challenging recent interpretations that cohabitation prior to
marriage is the actual cause of the increased likelihood of divorce. They
have created a mathematical model that contradicts a cause-and-effect
relationship suggested by a recently published study of the National
Marriage Project based at Rutgers University.
U.Va.-Michigan study, published on the Internet by the Society of
Labor Economists' Labor and Population Economics Seminars, suggests
that couples who live together before marriage are going through
a period of learning about each other and are simply different from
those who know right away that they want to marry.
far from increasing the divorce rate, the learning period might
actually prevent many later divorces, according to the authors of
the new study, "Cohabitation, Marriage and Divorce in a Model of
who get married without an intervening period of cohabitation have
gotten early signals that they have a very good match," says Steven
Stern, professor of economics at U.Va. and one of the co-authors
of the new study.
use a cohabitation period to learn more about their partners," Stern
says. "If, once they've learned more, they find they have a good
match, they marry; otherwise, they separate without incurring large
divorce costs. On average, their matches are not as good and they
have higher divorce rates."
it's not cohabitation that causes divorce," Stern emphasizes.
"Rather, the people who cohabit are simply different from those
who marry right away; their matches overall tend not to be as good.
In fact, our study suggests that if there were less of a stigma
associated with cohabitation and more people lived together before
marriage, the divorce rate would fall because everyone would
learn more about their partners' annoying habits before tying the
completed the study with co-authors Michael Brien, an economist
at U.Va. who is on leave this year as a visiting scholar at the
Social Security Administration, and Lee Lillard, an economist at
the University of Michigan.
authors are among social scientists nationwide who have turned their
attention to analyzing the increasing number of couples choosing
to live together outside of marriage. Stern, Brien and Lillard sought
to understand this social trend by constructing an economic model
that factors in the quality of relationships. The theoretical model
produced results that are consistent with current data on marriage
and divorce, the researchers said. The divorce rate has been stable
since 1980, while the number of couples living together outside
of marriage has been increasing.
addition to helping explain the link between cohabitation and divorce,
their research also suggests that:
Modest government policies to give people more incentive to marry,
such as reducing the "marriage penalty" in the U.S. tax code or
offering tax credits for children, have small effects on marriage
and divorce rates;
Divorce rates decline with the duration of a marriage, but much
of that is explained by the effect of other, unobserved differences
among couples, such as religious beliefs, which tend to preserve
the good matches;
Demographic characteristics, such as race, education and religion,
significantly affect couples' decisions to start and end relationships.
copy of this research is available at http://www.people.virginia.edu/~sns5r/structstf/bls.html.
more information, call Steven Stern at (804) 924-6754, or contact
him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Brien can be reached
at (202) 358-6354 or by email at email@example.com. Television
reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.