Does Cohabitation Predict Divorce?

My article, coauthored with Sarah Kerrigan and published last week, tries to answer the question. In short, the answer seems to be yes- cohabitation before marriage is associated with a 4.6 percentage point increase in the rate of marital dissolution. This is in line with much of the previous literature, which notes one big exception- choosing right (or getting lucky) the first time: “cohabitation had a significant negative association with marital stability, except when the cohabitation was with the eventual marriage partner”.

But we found some even more interesting facts while digging through the National Survey of Family Growth.

Our other regression results are that:

“non-white women are 9.9 pp more likely to divorce, those with a non-intact childhood family are 9.7 pp more likely to divorce, those in poverty are 19.2 pp more likely to divorce, religious women are 8.8 pp less likely to divorce, women who married later are less likely to divorce (1.5 pp less likely per year of age at first marriage). Those with children are substantially less likely to divorce, including if the children were born before marriage. While more education is associated with a lower divorce rate, education does not have a statistically significant effect on divorce after controlling for other factors”

While these results are merely observational, it is clear that the use of controls did change some patterns. In the raw data, divorce is significantly associated with less education and more premarital births. But once we add controls, the effect of education becomes a fairly precise zero, and the sign for premarital births actually flips and predicts marital stability. In plainer terms, those who had kids before marriage are more likely to divorce than those who didn’t, but it seems like this isn’t because of the kids- its that cohabiting before marriage, being nonreligious, and having divorced parents make you BOTH more likely to have kids before marriage and to divorce.

Two “meta” things I liked about this article. First, my coauthor Sarah Kerrigan wrote the first draft of this article as an undergraduate in my Economics Senior Capstone class at Providence College- I see a bright future for her. Second, the journal (SN Social Sciences) is currently open-access with no publication fees and nudges authors to share their data and code- so you can read the full article or download our data and code free at the link as you desire, the way research should work but mostly doesn’t.

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