Is 'Living in Sin' Still Bad for Your Marriage?

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Moving in together before marriage used to be associated with a higher risk for divorce. But now, as more unmarried couples than ever before decide to live under the same roof, do they face the same fate?

Sociologists think the calculus may have changed. Part of the difference stems from just who's deciding to shack up. In the late '70s, only about a third of people lived together before tying the knot. Those people tended to be less traditional in their beliefs—it was the age of the hippie, after all—and therefore more likely to get divorced, says Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As cohabiting has come more common across the country, however, the once strong link between "living in sin" and divorce has weakened over time. While some religious groups, such as socially conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews, still frown upon living together before marriage, two thirds of marriages in the U.S. now start as cohabitations. "Something that used to be stigmatized is now becoming the common experience," Smock says.

Another difference is why couples decide to live together. The '70s-era domestic partners might have been motivated by free love. But as you might expect in an era of high unemployment and rising poverty rates, it's often money, not romance, that prompts today's couples to share an address. "What really stood out was the change in unemployment characteristics," says Rose Kreider, a family demographer for the U.S. Census who analyzed recent data on the topic. In 2008, 59 percent of cohabiting couples said both partners were employed. That number fell to 49 percent in 2010. Kreider says the survey specifically asked people if they were living with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

As it turns out, money is likely to play a major role in a couple's prospects for the future, too. Many of the cohabitations that started for economic reasons during the Great Recession are "fragile" and probably won't result in marriage, says Wendy Manning, associate director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University. That's because the lower your income, the less likely you are to move from cohabitation to marriage, research has shown. (Of course, walking down the aisle isn't a goal for everyone) According to Manning's and Smock's research, even if couples with less money do end up getting married after cohabiting, they're still more likely to get divorced.

In tough economic times, financial stress can often trump love. During the Great Depression, when cohabiting was taboo, both marriage and divorce rates dropped. "These trends had little to do with marital happiness," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. "People kind of stay put during an economic downturn." Today, the divorce rate is at the lowest point since the early 1970s. Even with more Americans moving in together, the long-term decline in marriage also accelerated during the recession, according to the Census Bureau. Although the age at which people first marry is at a historic high (28 for men and 26 for women), most American couples still strive for marriage after they move in together, except during an economic downturn, Cherlin says. In other places across the world—such as the Scandinavian countries, in particular—cohabiting relationships have become a substitute for marriage. But for most Americans, "cohabitation is an acceptable but temporary arrangement," Cherlin says. "Many cohabiting couples may now be in limbo, unable to marry and afraid to break up."

Of course, getting married has its costs. Couples cite deficient funds and poor employment prospects, particularly on the part of the man in opposite-sex relationships, as significant impediments to marriage. "There are perceived economic requirements to marriage," Manning says. "People want to get all of their ducks in a row before moving into marriage." A study earlier this year found that people's day-to-day happiness rises until their salaries hit $75,000, after which there is little, if any, gain in happiness. But Manning says there is no corresponding "magic number" for marriage. "I could see it varying a lot across the country," she says. "What it takes to get your own apartment in Boston is probably different from what it takes to get your own apartment in Toledo, Ohio." Having a "proper" wedding ceremony and reception with family and friends is also important to many couples, Manning says. For some, $5,000 seems like a reasonable price tag. For others, the goal might be $20,000.

Although both partners will most likely end up contributing household income after marriage, men and women alike say that a husband should be able to provide for his wife and children financially. "There seems to be a cultural expectation that young adults feel that the male is supposed to be the breadwinner," says Smock, citing research she conducted with 18 focus groups separated by gender for a forthcoming paper. "It's a masculinity issue." Many couples will have a tough time realizing that ideal since almost a quarter (24 percent) of men who began cohabiting this year didn't work last year, according to the census report. That's compared with 14 percent of men who began cohabiting in 2009 and didn't work in the previous year.

And if money is tight, it's likely that stress is plentiful. Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas and the author of the upcoming book, Premarital Sex in America, says that moving in together to save money because one partner is unemployed is "fodder for conflict." Many marriages break up over fighting about money, he says. If financial troubles push a couple to move in together, the relationship might be even more at risk.

Despite the challenges, sharing a roof with a boyfriend or girlfriend might still seem more palatable if the alternative is heading back home to Mom and Dad. Of course, many are choosing that route, too.