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U.Va. Economists Challenge Notion That Living Together Before Marriage Leads To Divorce

Feb. 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.

But 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.

The 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.

And 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 Match Quality."

"Couples 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.

"Others 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."

"But 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 knot."

Stern 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.

The 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.

In addition to helping explain the link between cohabitation and divorce, their research also suggests that:

1) 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;

2) 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;

3) Demographic characteristics, such as race, education and religion, significantly affect couples' decisions to start and end relationships.

A copy of this research is available at

For more information, call Steven Stern at (804) 924-6754, or contact him by email at Michael Brien can be reached at (202) 358-6354 or by email at Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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