Why are the divorce rates so high for couples who lived together before marriage?

There are a number of reasons why cohabiting couples have higher rates of separation:

For one, imagine how much more difficult it would be to break up with a person if you were sexually intimate and living with him or her. Therefore, couples who are cohabiting often stay together not because they have blissful relationships, but because they’ve become so attached that they don’t want to start over. They often drag issues into marriage, and this sometimes leads to divorce. If a relationship needs to end, it’s much easier to let go of a person if you aren’t sleeping together, and if you don’t need a moving company to assist in the breakup!

Another reason is that cohabiting couples are usually sexually active, and according to the journal Adolescent & Family Health, “those who have premarital sex are more likely to have extramarital sex (affairs)—and extramarital sex contributes to many divorces.”[1]

However, since I would imagine that most cohabiting couples remain faithful in marriage, the infidelity link can account for only some of the increased divorce rate. Even when the couple remain faithful, cohabiting undermines commitment, since it is assumed that if one person finds enough faults in the other, he is free to leave. However, successful marriages are not the result of a lack of annoying qualities in the other; they are the result of choosing to love and forgive the other daily, with all his or her imperfections. It is the ability to sacrifice that holds marriages together, not the absence of nuisances. Couples who refuse to cohabit before marriage and refuse to engage in premarital sex seem to have a better understanding of the notion of sacrifice than couples who give in.

The desire to “test drive” a marriage demonstrates a lack of understanding regarding the essence of marriage, and what makes a marriage work. For one, it’s impossible to try out something that is permanent. Cohabiting also shows a real lack of faith in one’s love for the other. In one sense the couple is saying that they desire intimacy, but on the other hand they want to leave a way out if the partner does not measure up. This sows seeds of doubt and distrust from the start. Some couples seem to be under the impression that a good relationship will not have disappointments. When they marry and the disappointments come, they often bail out.

G.K. Chesterton said, “If Americans can be divorced for ‘incompatibility of temper,’ I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.”[2]

If you want a marriage to last, take an honest look at what makes love work. According to Pope John Paul II, “We love the person complete with all his or her virtues and faults, and up to a point, independently of those virtues and in spite of those faults. The strength of such a love emerges most clearly when the beloved person stumbles, when his or her weaknesses or even sins come into the open. One who truly loves does not then withdraw his love, but loves all the more, loves in full consciousness of the other’s shortcomings and faults, and without in the least approving of them.”[3]

This is why the slogan “Love is blind” is off the mark. Infatuation is blind, but love has both eyes wide open. That way we can see and know the other person fully, so that we can love him or her completely. Married couples often say that they really did not know their spouse fully until years into marriage, but dating couples who are infatuated feel they know everything about each other. It takes a lifetime to truly know the other, and cohabiting couples seem afraid of that task.

If things are running smoothly for a cohabiting couple, they may head toward marriage thinking, “Well, we haven’t been fighting much lately, and after living together for this long, I sure don’t want to start over with someone else. Why don’t we just make it official?” These couples often find it difficult to explain exactly what marriage is. You go through a big ceremony, get a piece of paper and new Tupperware, and go back to what you were doing before. This undermines the meaning of marriage as a covenant that two people make with God. Since they think less of marriage, they are less likely to work tirelessly to preserve it. Even when cohabiting couples do not end up marrying, their breakup can be as wrenching as an actual divorce.

For more research on the correlation between cohabitation and divorce, visit the links below:

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[1]. Reginald Finger, et al., “Association of Virginity at Age 18 with Educational, Economic, Social, and Health Outcomes in Middle Adulthood,” Adolescent & Family Health 3:4 (2004), 169.
[2]. G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1910, 1994), 64.
[3]. Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Love and Responsibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 135.

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