The number of Americans who find cohabitating acceptable has been growing, but fewer adults say they approve of divorce, according to a recent National Health Statistics report.

It's a continuation of a half-century of dramatic change in American family life, according to authors Jill Daugherty and Casey Copen, both Ph.Ds in the Center for Disease Control's Division of Vital Statistics. Their report outlines great change in family life: People marry for the first time later than in the past, divorce rates that shot up are now dropping, the fertility rate is lower, more people are cohabitating, a smaller share of new babies are being born to married parents and more of first births are to older mothers.

The report is based on data from the 2002, 2006-2010, and 2011-2013 editions of the National Survey of Family Growth.

"Living together before marriage may help prevent divorce," was agreed to by 60 percent of women and 67 percent of men in the 2011-2013 group. Those numbers are similar to findings in the previous survey as well. But the number who agreed "divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems" dropped from 46.7 percent of women and 44.3 percent of men in 2002 to 38 percent of women and 39.3 percent of men in the 2011-2013 group.

Similarly, support for the opinion that "a young couple should not live together unless they are married" dropped between 2002 and 2011-2013 — among women from 34.7 percent to 28 percent, and among men from 32 percent to 24.8 percent.

Other surveys have also documented growing acceptance of cohabitation. In November, The American Family Survey found generational differences: About 60 percent of young adults, 18-44, said it's "at least somewhat important" for two people to live together before marriage. Only 23 percent of seniors agreed, according to the nationally representative online poll of 3,000 American adults by the Deseret News and BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.

The American Family Survey noted "there is clearly a child-centric ethic to how people think about families." It found 21 percent of adults believe divorce should be easier to obtain. But when asked about cases where children live at home, that number dropped to 11 percent.

A question of stability

"Cohabi-dating" is how Scott Stanley describes the increase in cohabitating couples, which he said jeopardizes family stability. Stanley, research professor, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and senior fellow for both the National Marriage Project and the Institute for Family Studies, said moving in together is now part of the dating scene — and it doesn't portend long-term commitment the way it did a couple of decades ago.

Couples who lived together then, "unless they were otherwise anti-marriage or legally not able to marry … were waiting for their wedding date," he said. "A few were not going to ever marry, but it was clearly (for most) a precursor to marriage." Many cohabitators saw living-together first as a way to ward off future divorce — a trial run of sorts.

Fewer cohabitating couples now see it as a run-up to marriage, said Stanley. "Serial cohabitation is becoming more prominent. … It is clear that in the more recent decade or so, more cohabitators are going to break up than marry."

When couples are engaged "you know a ton about their commitment," he said. When they cohabitate, you know little. "They may not even see themselves as being off the market."

The exception is in among the very poor, where marriage has been, in Stanley's words, "largely obliterated. There, cohabitating indicates a deeper commitment," he said.

Scott believes some people believe living together instead of marrying is safer because if things don't work out, they won't have to divorce. They may not recognize ongoing "premature entanglement and that they're more potentially stuck" than couples who don't cohabitate.

There's also greater risk of "asymmetrical commitment," where one partner thinks they're in it for the long haul and the other is not as committed, Stanley said. Even where a couple gets married, Stanley and his colleague Galena Rhoades found that those who began to cohabitate prior to being married or at least engaged are more likely to have asymmetrical commitment before marriage that lasts years into marriage, with males more often than females being the less-committed partners.

Different views

In a briefing report for the Council on Contemporary Families that coincides with a just-released updated version of her 1992 book, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," Stephanie Coontz asked and answered whether Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are "leading young couples astray." The famous acting duo cohabitated and began a family together several years before they married.

Coontz said that in 1995, couples who cohabitated, had a premarital birth and later married were 60 percent more likely to divorce than those who waited to have children until they were married. That's now changed, she writes. They aren't any more likely to divorce than couples who marry first or who live together but marry before having a child.

Two-thirds of marriages now start with cohabitating, said Coontz, the council's director of research and public education and a history and family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Among those who don't cohabitate are "the strongly religious — and their divorce rates are probably pretty low." Another group that doesn't cohabitate are those who "jump straight into marriage. Selection is in a sense working in the opposite direction."

She said less-educated people are more likely to move into cohabitation quickly, while for those who are better educated, "moving in takes a year or so, then they live together for a while, check each other out and move in a planned way into marriage." She said that a more deliberate, planned process doesn't seem to affect stability.

Others suggest a "selection effect" in which just the most stable couples go on to marry.

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