High school seniors overwhelmingly believe that living with someone before marriage is a good way to test compatibility, according to a new brief from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

The findings are based on long-term data collected by the University of Michigan as part of its Monitoring the Future study. Teens were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.”

The share of high school seniors who agreed rose from 40% in 1976 to nearly 70% in 2020.

Meanwhile, an unrelated report from Pew Research Center finds a growing share of adults disapproves of cohabitation, though most remain neutral. About one-fourth of U.S. adults now say living together before marriage is generally bad for society, an increase of five points from three years ago. 

Living together is a calculation that couples should make with care if they hope to stay together, experts told the Deseret News.

“What we know from a number of studies, including recent studies, is that couples who live together before they’ve made a commitment to marriage tend to fare worse in their marriages. They have a higher risk for divorce and report lower-quality relationships,” said Galena K. Rhoades, a research professor in the University of Denver’s psychology department.

Still, there’s no question cohabitation is thoroughly embedded in U.S. romantic relationship formation. Of marriages that took place between 2015 and 2019, three-fourths followed cohabitation, the Bowling Green report said. That was only true of one-third in the mid- to late-1970s. Even today, a large number of cohabiters never marry.

The distant future

That marriage is more stable than cohabitation is not a new finding. Rhoades said if testing the relationship is one of the reasons couples say they live together, they also report a poorer quality relationship.

“In a sample of people cohabiting, the more you’re living together to test it, the more it looks like you have to test the relationship because you’re also reporting that things aren’t going all that well,” she said.

The age at which young people live together hasn’t changed over time, even as the age at marriage has increased considerably. Couples cohabit on average around age 21, according to Wendy D. Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green.

What has changed is the expectation cohabitation will lead to marriage. Living together first used to be “just sort of what you would do for a short time before you actually married. Now I think the endpoint might not be as clear,” she said.

Having children doesn’t necessarily mean a cohabiting couple will marry, either. Some don’t see marriage as vital to being a family, Manning said, and the public generally agrees. When researchers ask if it’s OK to raise children in cohabiting unions, most people say yes or that it doesn’t make a difference.

The survey of high school students, though, by its nature considers attitudes of those contemplating their future, not making decisions in the moment. “They’re on the cusp of moving into family formation ages and stages,” Manning said.

The 2020 data shows a slight decline in the share who see marriage in their own futures and an increase in those who are unsure. It’s not that they’re actually rejecting marriage, said Manning, noting that “We’re talking to people when they’re 17 or 18 years old. … It might be that as marriage ages get older, it’s just so far in the future. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s something you do when you’re 30. I don’t know. I’m only 17.’”

According to Manning, the fact Monitoring the Future has surveyed high school seniors since the 1970s is valuable for establishing trends. That the wording of questions is consistent is both a weakness and a strength.

She said asking if cohabitation is a testing ground for marriage “sort of implies that people are planning on getting married,” while a survey on marriage from the same group strongly indicates that youths aren’t sure if they will wed. When the question was first asked, the vast majority assumed they would marry.

“There could be a lot of reasons to live together besides seeing if you’re compatible to marry,” she said. 

Manning finds transitions out of cohabitation interesting because they’re so varied. She said couples are less likely to move straight into marriage today than in the past. Some cohabit with one person and later another. People may have more relationships partly because the age at marriage continues to rise, creating time and space for more relationships.

“I think the transition is becoming even more complicated because you can break up with one person, then live with a second person and then marry that person. There are more pathways, I would say, into marriage than there used to be,” she said.

And some will never marry, despite having a live-in relationship, while others may marry someone with whom they never lived before. “Something to keep in mind is we still see that among people who get married, about three-quarters have lived with someone before. So the most common pathway into marriage is through cohabitation — and often more than one before you got there,” Manning said.

Cohabitation is also growing among older adults and some of those relationships might last as long as a marriage because they’re cohabiting for different reasons at a different stage of life, Manning said. 

What happened to marriage?

Another Bowling Green brief this month using the Monitoring the Future data shows a dramatic drop in marriage, from 76.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 1970 to 30.5 in 2019.

A growing number of adults never marry. But the brief says 71% of the high school seniors expected to marry when asked in 2020, down from 81% in 2006. Across that time span, as many as 6% said they don’t expect to marry at all. But the share who wasn’t sure grew from 15% in 2006 to 23% in 2020.

By gender, between 1976 snd 2006, the share of men who expected to marry increased from 70% to 81%. Women stayed at 82%. But between 2006 and 2020, the share of both who expected to marry dropped: 69% of men and 76% of women expected to marry in the future.

The expectation of marrying one day changed very little over time for whites, in the low to mid 80% range. For Blacks, the expectation of marriage decreased from 75% in 2006 to 62% in 2020. Hispanics dropped from 74% in 2006 to 63% in 2020. Close to a third of both Blacks and Hispanics most recently said they have no idea if they will marry.

A recent report Manning co-wrote published in the American Sociological Association’s journal Contexts found the share of women in opposite-sex cohabiting unions has been leveling off and perhaps even declining, based on National Survey of Family Growth data. Meanwhile, marriage is definitely declining, bolstering the notion that “women will be less likely to form any union.”

The United States has had a decline in both marriage and divorce rates for a long time, Manning said. “That just to us means that the people who are entering marriage are waiting longer. They want to be economically set before they get married. Those are folks who are less likely to get divorced.”

Rethinking how to test compatibility

Rhoades loves the idea that high school seniors take marriage seriously enough to want to be sure it’s the right decision and they’ve found the right person. But she says when people move in together, they often don’t recognize the number of constraints created that make it harder to break up. They sign leases together, get pets and are more likely to become pregnant, she said. 

“If you’re living together to test the relationship, that might not be the best plan,” said Rhoades. “People can end up staying together longer for wrong reasons, instead of because they found the person they really want to be with.”

Even so, they’re less likely to stay together long term, “because they don’t have that fundamental commitment to one another and the desire to be together. ... Research shows that it’s more likely that you’ll have marital trouble if you live together before becoming engaged,” said Rhoades.

Cohabiting lasts a couple of years on average before ending in a breakup or marriage, said Rhoades. “We know that kids do best when they grow up with both of their biological parents. And parents who are cohabiting and not married tend to be less stable and that tends to be not as good an environment for kids as we would want them to have.”

While she said there’s “probably not something magical for kids about their parents having legal documentation of their relationship, parents are more likely to provide stability for their children if they’re committed, and the best way that people show they’re committed in our culture is by getting married.”

Nor is cohabiting the only way to test a relationship’s durability. Rhoades suggests really unpacking values and goals to see if they’re compatible, as well as making plans together to see how they mesh. And she thinks it’s a good idea to take some time and “see people in all four seasons.”

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Disapproval climbs

The new Pew Research Center report on adult attitudes about cohabitation found disapproval increasing even as the practice has grown. While 1 in 4 say it’s generally bad for society, roughly 1 in 7 deem living together good. More than 6 in 10 say it doesn’t make a difference.

Age, political ideology and race/ethnicity all contribute to opinions about living together outside marriage, though gender doesn’t make a big difference. Nearly one-third of Black adults believe cohabiting is bad, compared to one-fourth of whites. Only among Hispanics do more see cohabitation as good (19%) than bad (17%), though that’s also the largest neutral group. The sample size for Asians was too small to include. 

Disapproval grows with age, from a low of 13% calling cohabiting generally bad among those age 18-29 up through a high of 35% among those 65 and older.  While up to 8% of those 50 and older see cohabiting as good, shares are significantly higher for those 30-49 (16%) and young adults 18-29 (28%).

Republicans and those leaning that way are more likely to see cohabitation as a bad thing for society than are Democrats and Democratic learners. While 38% of Republicans say it’s bad for society and just 6% say it’s good, among Democrats 20% approve, while 13% say it’s bad.