What does the new Guzzo study tell us about the instability of cohabitation?

I blogged about a new study on cohabitation earlier in the month, but I only had the abstract. Now more details are out, from Family-Studies.org.

First, some context:

In a new paper, Bowling Green State University sociologist Karen Guzzo analyzes how the odds of cohabitation leading to either getting married or breaking up have changed over the years. Before getting to her findings, let’s review some of the cohabitation trends she highlights in her report (based on prior studies).

  1. The majority of people in their 30s have lived with someone outside of marriage.
  2. Cohabitation, rather than marriage, is now the more common form of first union.
  3. Fewer marriages than in the past start out with the couple having intentions to marry.
  4. People are more likely than ever to cohabit with multiple partners in succession—what I have called “CohabiDating.”
  5. More children than ever before are born to cohabiting couples, and this explains most of the rise in the number of children being born out of wedlock.

Guzzo notes, as have others, that cohabiting has become a normative experience in the romantic and sexual lives of young adults. As young adults put off marriage until later in life, cohabitation has inhabited much of the space that used to be made up of married couples. I think this dramatic change in how relationships form matters for at least two reasons. First, many cohabiting couples have children, but they are less likely than married couples to have planned to have children and they are much less likely to remain together after having children… Second, most people want lasting love in life, and most people still intend to accomplish that in marriage.

Here is the main finding of the new paper:

To simplify and summarize, what Guzzo found is that the increasing diversity in the types of cohabitation and cohabiters does not explain much about why things are so different from the past when it comes to increased odds that cohabiting couples will break up or not marry. Rather, on average, all types of cohabiting couples have become more likely than in the past to break up or not transition into marriage.

Here’s a quote from her paper (pg. 834):

Relative to cohabitations formed between 1990 and 1994, cohabitations formed from 1995–1999, 2000–2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%, respectively, more likely to dissolve than remain intact. The lower risk of marriage over remaining intact occurred only for the last two cohabitation cohorts (2000–2004 and 2005 and later), which were about 18% and 31% less likely to marry than remain intact, respectively.

Moving in together is becoming less and less likely to lead to having a future together. That’s not to say that all cohabiters are in the same boat regarding their destination. Those who are engaged (or have clear plans to marry) before moving in together are far more likely to eventually marry—but as Guzzo shows, even they are becoming less likely to do so. Related to this, my colleagues and I have shown, in numerous studies, that couples with clear plans to marry before cohabiting, along with those who marry without cohabiting, tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce than those who move in together before having a clearly settled commitment to the future in marriage. (We believe this is largely because, while cohabiting unions obviously break up often, they are harder to break off than dating relationships because it becomes harder to move out and move on. So some people get stuck in a relationship they would otherwise have not remained in.)

[…]Cohabitation is fundamentally ambiguous. In fact, that is part—but just part—of why I believe it has become so popular. Sure, there are many cohabiting couples for whom living together was understood as a step-up in commitment, but, on average, research shows it is not associated with an increase in dedication to one’s partner.

So those are the findings from the latest study. You can find more studies on cohabitation linked here in my previous post on this topic.

7 thoughts on “What does the new Guzzo study tell us about the instability of cohabitation?”

  1. There’s no purpose to anything anymore. why marry? why have kids? why even commit to one person? whatever seems expedient at the time determines people’s decisions. no consequences to think of beyond the next few days.
    Hasn’t the sexual revolution been fun? So glad I skipped it.


  2. Marriage should be a union on faith. I belief (though I believe in studies) that “cohabiting” has saved alot of people from marrying someone they can’t spend the rest of their lives with. I am from the belief that people should live together for a year before they marry because that is a true test of commitment. I am truly from the belief that law bending marriage takes the faith out of what a true commitment is, “a person’s word”, but back to the topic at hand; things change when you truly have to merge assets. And, if marriage is so “sacred” it should be tested before two people graduate to that state of being. We aren’t all emtional intelligent, so we have to see how our emotions translate to “the day to day”.
    A lot of people stay in marriages for the wrong reasons once upon of time, so ultimately that will skew the statistics….we should measure who is happier: people who never want to get married and been together for ten years; or people who are married and been together at least ten years….


      1. But how people perceive happiness and connect Love can be skewed. Why people are divorcing vs why they aren’t. If people are being honest with themselves leaving because of warning sign that is healthy vs people staying in abusive marriage (whether being cheating on or physically abused) to save face or because they are scared to be alone which unhealthy. There are alot of variables when measuring: Love, marriage, happiness, and what improves our relationship….that’s right and fact


    1. The problem with cohabitation is that it isn’t making a commitment. The whole point of cohabitation is to AVOID making a commitment while still trying out the perks of marriage. As such, the emphasis is on evaluating the other person to see if they meet your expectations, not on working to make a life together because your chips are all in. Cohabitation is inherently a statement that the other person had better measure up or you’re leaving. You want the fun of marriage without having to stay if you don’t like it. That’s not commitment. And that’s not love.

      Also, merging assets and having a shared lease and all of those kinds of thing are a very BAD idea when you don’t have a marriage commitment. Would you share a bank account with some acquaintance from work that you don’t know if you’ll even remember in 5 years? Would you enter a 2 year cell phone contract with a stranger on the street? No, of course you wouldn’t. Well, cohabitation is basically the same thing. You don’t know if you’ll be a couple in a year or two because you’ve made no commitment. But you’re entering other commitments with them, even though you have no commitment to each other.

      What’s more, once you make those ties to someone you’re not sure you want to be with forever, it’s hard to get them out of your life. You’re tying yourself to them gradually and just making the decision-making harder by giving yourself many reasons to stay when you don’t know if staying is wise yet. You’re stacking the deck against making a wise decision by making it harder to leave a relationship before you even know if it’s a relationship worth having. That’s why people end up sliding into marriage rather than deciding. They figure it’s too hard to break up because they’ve gotten used to each other and they’d have to figure out how to split up the furniture and who gets the dog or the kids. It’s easier to stay, even if the relationship was never a good one, than to go through the trouble of breaking it off.


      1. Cohabitation is a big commitment, believing someone is worth you giving up your own to share, is the biggest step. I get you are for “marriage” and you believe that it’s the ultimate commitment; but knowing someone is continuously coming home without paperwork attached, is the highest form of commitment. Yes, they can leave at anytime but they don’t want to because they are devoted to their word. Love is a faith bending two people as one by the heart not papers. Yes, I did state that “IF” two people want to get married, they should live together for a year because Living together does cement the idea that “the marriage” will function well, however, I used “if” because I don’t believe in “Law bending marriage”, once I engage in intercourse I am married. So I don’t until I am sure this in my life partner. I noticed you used expectations as opposed to chemistry; chemistry is what you are building while living together, you are putting two favorable people together and seeing if they merge well or explode. Yes, there should be things expected but it should be based on what the other person told you they want, need, and who they are; it’s through communication. I also understand that unless you are married, you union isn’t covered under Law, which give your partner no rights….but if we are just talking about happiness, commitment, and faith (Love); we are talking about matters of the heart not pens and papers.

        For a person to compare a strange to someone you are in Love with is a form of manipulation. I wouldn’t share a cell or my bank account with an acquaintance or a friend. But I would with someone I am living with and in Love with….easily.
        People aren’t courageous. You are right about that but most people just don’t know how to formulate relationships whether they are married or not. My point is that living together changes color to black and white, and black and white is understanding the commitment and staying committed to it.


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