Info & Advice

Is it better to live together before marriage?

Moving in with your partner seems like a very sensible idea. You find out just what they’re like to live with on a daily basis without all the intimidating formalities of marriage. But the situation may be more complicated than you think.

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You’ve met someone, things are going great and you’re ready to get serious. A few decades ago, the obvious next step for most couples would have been marriage: that was the norm and few people questioned it. Most couples married in their early 20s: back in 1970 the average age of people getting married for the first time was just 23.

But attitudes have changed dramatically since. Living together without marriage is the new norm. Cohabitating couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK, and there are now an estimated 3.5 million in England and Wales. Back in 1996 there were only 1.5 million: that’s a 137 per cent increase in less than 30 years! The average at which most Britons tie the knot for the first time is now 31.

Changing attitudes

What has driven this significant shift in attitudes? Perhaps the root cause was the invention of modern contraception: this made accidental pregnancy much less of a concern than it was for our grandparents. Couples felt freer to experiment and explore and less willing to make major commitments without being sure they were really the right thing to do. Individual freedoms became the focus as society moved away from traditional, unquestioned norms. The fierce stigma that once surrounded “out of wedlock” births has now completely vanished and more children are now born to unmarried parents in the UK than to married ones. The liberalisation of divorce was another symptom of the same social change: why stay in failing marriage with a spouse you no longer love? Most people saw freedom to move on and rebuild as an undoubted social good.

A good proportion of unmarried couples move on to marriage eventually. They have lived together for however many years, gotten to know each other well, and found that their relationship has remained strong, so they feel confident about making a more serious and formal commitment. It seems a natural thing to do.

Chances of divorce

But reality is, as ever, more complicated. Sociologists have uncovered the curious fact that couples who lived together before marriage actually have a greater chance of getting divorced after their first year of wedded bliss than those who did not (Rosenfeld and Roesler, 2018). Why would this be the case? Living together before the big day means couples have plenty of time to get used to each other’s foibles and quirks, making actual marriage less of an adjustment or shock to the system. But perhaps, beyond that first 12 months, a sense that relationships are contingent and temporary can linger on, leaving either spouse more willing to contemplate divorce than they might otherwise have been.

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