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The first major key to understanding the following statistics -- and the core source of most misquotes and misinterpretation -- is the difference between "correlation" and "causality." These terms may seem rudimentary (and forgive me if they are to you), but they are so often misunderstood in the world of interpreting scientific studies. For a clear, entertaining, totally readable treatment of this concept, I recommend the book Freakonomics and its sequel SuperFreakonomics, which you can devour entirely on a mid-distance flight and looks way better when brandished in front of your in-flight neighbor than your suspiciously worn copy of 50 Shades of Grey. (I'm so topical, y'all! Finger on the PULSE!) Here's a short video by the authors on the concept if I'm too dry and lame for you:
Reduced to its simplest core, many events can correlate with one another without one necessarily causing the other.
The actual statistics on cohabitation come from this study by the CDC, and what they show is that couples who live together before marriage are indeed more likely to get divorced. What they do not show is that living together before marriage causes divorce. Rather, some of the factors that correlate with a couple's likelihood to live together unmarried also correlate with their likelihood to never marry or not stay married. The factors are annoyingly predictable: education levels, race, family history of marriage, age of first marriage, timing of first childbirth, importance of religion, etc. All of these factors are discussed in depth (with charts and everything!) in the study. (It's surprisingly readable if you're interested.)
But what the study says about cohabitation is this:
"Previous cohabitation experience was significantly associated with marriage survival probabilities for men. In general, men who cohabited prior to their first marriage had lower probabilities of the marriage surviving to the 10th anniversary than those who did not cohabit prior to their first marriage."However, if a couple was engaged at the time they cohabitated, the statistics on marriage success were nearly identical to couples who never cohabitated before marriage. (The New York Times also did a piece on this.) "The likelihood that a marriage would last 10 years was 71% for men who were engaged at cohabitation and 69% for men who had never cohabited before their first marriage." Women had similar statistics.
So, it's true that people who are more likely to live together before marriage have a lower chance, statistically, of being married in 10 years. But it's also true that people who live together before marriage are less likely to get married at all. And, it's also true that, though there is a correlation between premarital cohabitation and 10 year divorce rates, there's a larger correlation between other factors and divorce:
"While there was a 9% difference in the ten-year divorce rate between couples who cohabited and those who didn't, the difference was 30% by family income (couples with an income of $50,000 or more are much less likely to get divorced), 24% by age at marriage (women who marry when they're 25 or older are less likely to divorce), 14% by religion (religious women are less likely to divorce), and 13% by education (women with education beyond high school are less likely to divorce)." (Source: unmarried.org)One thing is for sure, more people are doing it. This comprehensive study is a decade old now, and who knows how the numbers might have changed, but the basic principles -- especially as far as age, education, and delaying childbirth are concerned -- likely still hold true (not least because these three factors also influence the big marriage divider: household income). My basic, imploring point, though, is aimed at all you wedding blog commentators: don't use statistics to bolster moral arguments unless you're sure you understand what the statistics are saying. Moving in together won't make you get a divorce, just as putting a ring on it before you live in the same house won't make you stay married forever. But having an intelligent and respectful conversation about marriage rates in our country? That's hot. Hot like biscuits. Dance biscuits.
Oh and P.S.: I'm getting married on Saturday. 'Til then, Boomstickers!