Counteracting Negative Effects of Cohabitation for Couples and Children Through RE

By Hailey Palmer and Alan J. Hawkins

 The bottom line first: A recent study found that children born to less educated mothers were more likely to be exposed to cohabitation, which led to more family transitions throughout childhood and adverse effects. Researchers also recently found that couples who cohabited before marriage had significantly lower rates of breakup in the first year after marrying but higher divorce rates after that compared to married couples who never cohabited. Relationship educators may be able to play a role in reducing the potential negative effects of premarital cohabitation.

Cohabitation has become commonplace in our society. Not only do about two-thirds of couples live together before saying “I do,” but more than 40 percent of children in the United States will live in a cohabiting family at some point before reaching the age of 12.[1] But what effect does this have on couples and children?

Using the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), researchers in one study followed groups of children born between 1985 and 2010 until their fifth birthday.[2] They looked at trends such as family transitions and whether these trends differed by socioeconomic status. Here are some of the key findings:

  • Within the last 25 years, a child’s likelihood of experiencing parental cohabitation has nearly tripled.
  • Children born to less educated mothers were at higher risk of experiencing parental cohabitation than children born to highly educated mothers.
  • Children born to less educated mothers also had an increased likelihood of exposure to family transitions and churning (entrances or exits of a parental figure from their lives). Researchers have found these transitions to affect the well-being of children adversely.

In addition, another study used the same National Survey of Family Growth to predict marital dissolution (separation and/or divorce).[3] Using six waves of the survey between 1970 and 2015, researchers analyzed nearly 25,000 women. (The NSFG did not include men until 2002 so they were not included in the sample.) Here are some of the key findings:

  • The risk for dissolution in the first year of marriage was higher for those who never cohabited before marriage. And those who cohabited had more stable marriages, but this effect was only significant in the first year of marriage. This effect may stem from the practical experience of cohabitation; namely, those who cohabit before marriage endure through the natural period of adjustment that occurs when starting to live with another person. They experience fewer “surprises” in the first year.
  • After 2-5 years of marriage, the couples who cohabited had significantly higher rates of marital dissolution than couples who never cohabited before marriage. (Other research suggests this higher risk continues beyond 5 years.)
  • Overall, couples who cohabited before marriage were 137% more likely to experience divorce or separation than couples who did not cohabit before marriage.
  • Similar to past studies, the highest rates of marital dissolution were found among women who cohabited with two or more partners who did not eventually become their husbands.

What does this mean for relationship educators? Here are some implications from these two studies:

  • Target efforts toward higher risk individuals. Relationship educators should design curricula and interventions specifically to help more disadvantaged mothers as well as couples who have cohabited with several partners.
  • Aid couples in making a commitment. Several of the negative effects of cohabitation result from couples sliding into a relationship they may not be fully committed to.[4] Relationship educators should avoid assuming both partners within the relationship have the same level of commitment toward the future. However, educators can actively seek to inform young adults of the importance of making deliberate decisions when it comes to major relationship transitions, such as marriage.
  • Reverse the negative effects. Relationship educators should be aware that cohabiting couples do have a higher risk for negative relationship outcomes (beyond the first year) and that this risk increases with time. However, RE scholars have found that relationship education can be a buffer to help couples avoid some of the negative effects of cohabitation.[5] Relationship educators can focus on addressing the issues of poor communication, ambivalent commitment, as well as co-parenting concerns that are common among cohabiting couples. If asked, educators could provide straightforward, nonjudgmental information on the reasons cohabiting couples may be more at risk in these areas, encouraging them to keep working to maintain a healthy relationship.



[1] Manning, W. D. (2015). Cohabitation and child wellbeing. The Future of Children, 25, 51–66. doi:10.1353/foc.2015.0012

[2] Rackin, H. M., & Gibson, D. C. M. (2018). Social class divergence in family transitions: The importance of cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and Family. doi:10.1111/jomf.12522

[3] Rosenfeld, M. J., & Roesler, K. (2018). Cohabitation experience and cohabitation’s association with marital dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family. doi:10.1111/jomf.12530

[4] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations. 55, 499-599. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00418.x

[5] Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Working with cohabitation in relationship education therapy. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. 8, 95-112. doi:10.1080/15332690902813794