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(Last updated 2/2/04)



COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new study suggests that couples who live together before marriage may be less likely to eventually marry than previously believed.

Sharon Sassler

Only about 40 percent of cohabiting couples studied ended up marrying within four to seven years. And 42 percent of cohabiting couples disagreed about the future of their relationship, the study found.

Moreover, contrary to popular belief, men with the best economic prospects and couples who were the most similar were not more likely than others to marry after living together.

Overall, the study shows that living together is not necessarily a transitional period that leads to marriage, said Sharon Sassler, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

“For growing numbers of couples, cohabitation is now becoming an alternative to marriage or being single,” Sassler said. “Many couples seem to be living together longer without marrying or ending their relationship.”

“Some studies show that cohabiting couples with the best economic prospects are the ones who get married. But we find just the opposite. Men who earn the most are least likely to marry, but also are less likely to break up with their partners.”

Sassler conducted the study with James McNally of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. Their results were published in the current issue of the journal Social Science Research.

This new research is different from previous studies in several ways. For one, it included data from couples and not just one person in a relationship. Also, it is more accurate than many previous studies because it “repairs” lost data that other studies don’t take into account, Sassler said.

Many studies of cohabiting couples use data from the National Survey of Families and Households, which interviewed Americans over age 19 in 1987 and 1988 (and their partners, if any) and then again four to seven years later. Responses to the second round of interviews provided information about marriages or breakups among the participants.

However, more than half of the original participants couldn’t be located or otherwise didn’t participate in the second round of the study. The problem is that those who couldn’t be re-interviewed tended to be those with lower levels of education and income – the people who were most likely to be cohabiting.

Sassler and McNally used statistical techniques to “repair” the data and help project what the findings would have been if all the original participants had been re-interviewed. The results between the repaired and unrepaired data sets were often different, sometimes strikingly so, Sassler said.

For example, the unrepaired data set showed that 45 percent of the cohabiting couples married between the first interview and the second interview.

However, the repaired data set suggests only 40 percent actually married.

Another key finding was that – contrary to what some other studies have shown – cohabiting men who earn the most money are actually less likely than others to marry.

“Some studies show that cohabiting couples with the best economic prospects are the ones who get married,” Sassler said. “But we find just the opposite. Men who earn the most are least likely to marry, but also are less likely to break up with their partners.”

Another surprise was the couples who were the most alike – those who shared religions, were near the same age, and had similar levels of education – were not more likely to marry than couples with significant differences in background.

“There is a belief that couples who are more alike will have more stable relationships and will transition into marriage, but that doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said.

The factor that best predicted whether cohabiting couples married was consensus regarding definite marriage plans, but Sassler said such consensus was relatively rare.

Fewer than one-third of the couples (32 percent) concurred that they had definite plans to marry. Another 42 percent disagreed about the future of their relationship. Others either agreed they wouldn’t marry or thought they would eventually marry.

“Our results indicate that couples who use cohabitation as a trial period to test compatibility are far less likely to marry than couples who agree that there are definite marriage plans and a specific wedding date,” Sassler said.

Also contrary to popular belief, when there was disagreement about future plans among couples, it was men as often as women who were pushing to get married. Neither men nor women had more success than the other in persuading reluctant partners to marry.

Sassler said this study suggests that many of our views about cohabitation may need to be revised.

“The transition from cohabitation to marriage is very different from transitions from singlehood,” she said.

“There seem to be fewer couples than we believed who decide to get married and many who are satisfied just staying in the current relationship,” she said.

The study was partially supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.


Contact: Sharon Sassler, (614) 292-6687; Sassler.1@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu