The truth behind the misleading ‘shacking up’ headline

The headline on MSN tells you all you need to know about how the mainstream media sees family issues: “Shacking Up No Longer a Major Divorce Predictor: Yet another reason to live in sin.” The story reports on a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and trumpets this finding: “A new government study finds that men and women who live together before marriage no longer run a higher risk of divorcing like they did in years past.”

Initially such a finding would seem to have some plausibility. With an ever-increasing number of people living together before marriage, the fact of “merely” living together might not seem to be that significant anymore.

That, however, is not precisely what the study said and the title and opening of the article are actually wildly misleading. 

For instance, the study actually shows that if a couple only lives together without being engaged, they actually are still more likely to divorce. The effect of cohabitation in increasing divorce risk only begins to decrease for men when the couple moves in together after becoming engaged. For women, divorce risk is less for those who don’t live with their future spouse, and cohabitation of any kind has about the same effect — an increase in divorce risk.

The other glaring omission in the news report is that this study only tracks people who lived together and then married. So there’s a self-selection effect — if the couple breaks up (as cohabiting couples do in higher rates than married couples) then they are out of this study completely.

A fuller picture of cohabiting research would look like this: If you cohabit you are in an inherently unstable relationship which will not yield the benefits to the couple that marriage does and which is more likely to involve danger of abuse from your partner (and any children in the relationship are at particularly high risk). If your cohabiting relationship happens to survive and you eventually marry the partner you are more likely to divorce than if you had not lived together but perhaps less so if you started living together when you became engaged.

Some “good news”!