Cohabitation: Divorce Makes Living Together Popular, Study Shows

Living with a partner outside of marriage is a growing trend. The number of heterosexual cohabitating couples has almost doubled since 1990. A major contributing factor for choosing cohabitation is the fear of going through a grueling divorce, experts say.

People who have suffered through a bad marriage and painful, expensive divorce are often reluctant to risk going through the experience again. Many people will view living together as an option with a faster, cleaner exit strategy. It’s not a financial thing for me, rather an emotional thing.” says Sheila Walker, 44, of Medford, Oregon, who has lived with her partner, Gerald, for seven years. I had been married for eight long, miserable years… It was almost impossible to get out of that relationship.”

The U.S. Bureau of Census reports that the number of heterosexual couples cohabitating has climbed from 2.856 million in 1990 to 5.368 million in 2006. During the period from 1990 to 2005, the U.S. Bureau of Census reports that the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women age 15 and older has dropped 54.5 to 40.7 with the number of divorces dropping from 20.9 to 16.4. We do know that the rate of remarriage has dropped for divorcees. The main reason is that they are living together and not remarrying.” says Dr. David Popenoe, founder and co-director of the National Marriage Project, Rutgers University.

“Even though Gerald wanted marriage, I did not,” explains Walker. “If we could stand together without the legal paperwork, it meant that we both really wanted this relationship to work.”

The July 2007 Pew Research Center report “As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors,” surveyed 2,020 people. The Pew report found that nearly half of the respondents in their thirties and forties had cohabitated at some point in their lives. The Pew report indicates that the majority of people under the age of 65 do not view cohabitation as a negative.

Similarly, when asked how important it was for a couple spending their lives together to marry, 47 percent said very important, 23 percent said somewhat important, and 27 percent indicating it was not too important or of importance at all.


The Pew report includes 100 heterosexual respondents who were living with a partner. Of these, 64 percent have never been married. When asked if they wanted to marry, 44 percent did and 41 percent were not sure.

The watchword appears to be caution. The risk and reward benefit assessment appears to be too close for some people. Having no children together, the ease in severing ties was a big factor in our choice to live together,” Walker said.

Popenoe points out that risk of divorce is greater for those remarrying: Studies indicate that the risk of divorce for people remarrying range from 50 percent higher to almost double compared to first-time marriages.”


Divorce rates began to rise in the mid-sixties and peaked in 1980. Though still high, the divorce rate has gradually dropped with a downturn in the past five years. Unlike previous generations, people born in the past 40 years often experienced their parents’ divorce. Some of the takeaways make cohabitation more attractive. Popenoe feels that this experience has had a major impact on younger generations: “Having a fear of divorce in their own right is part of the issue. Going through a divorce is one thing that they want to try and avoid.”

“If you live together and there is a split, your credit rating and bank accounts are less likely to be threatened in the future by the irresponsibility or actions of your former partner. There is a snowballing effect,” says Popenoe. “The more divorces that you have, especially bad divorces, the more difficult it is for young people to envision themselves in a happy marriage.”

There is a dangerous assumption with cohabitation, though: The property and assets that you brought into the relationship, and accrued during it, remain yours.

Attorney John E. Harding ,a Certified Family Law Specialist, The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization, offers the following advice: “I can only speak as to California law. In California, palimony is a pure question of contract law. In order for family law principles to apply there has to be a marriage. The best way to avoid palimony in California is by never making a verbal or written promise to support the other person, and then to maintain separate financial accounts. One of the factors the court considers is whether or not the parties have ‘pooled’ their assets. For example, creating a joint checking account, which is then used to pay the bills of both people. There can also be problems when a couple purchases a piece of real property together. However, again without a marriage, it is not a family law issue. That type of dispute is adjudicated according to general real estate law principles.”

The impact of past divorces will continue to make cohabitation increasingly popular. Popenoe foresees the trends growing. “I expect the rate of marriage to continue to decrease and the rate of non-marital cohabitation to continue to increase.”

In the future for Walker and her partner, “Eventually, we may be forced to ‘tie the knot’ for insurance purposes. Just for that reason, not because I think it will deepen or improve our relationship.”


1. Investigate the applicable laws in your state related to cohabitation.
Consulting with an attorney is preferable. Many bar associations offer referral service for a nominal fee. You may also search the Internet and find information by entering a search string such as ‘common law marriage (your state)’.

2. Keep things separated.
Avoid joint checking accounts and both people becoming a party to a legal contract such as an apartment lease.

3. Consider a trial run of living together as a compatibility check.
Have each person pack a couple of suitcases and live at the other’s place for a week or more. This is a good way to gauge compatibility concerning neatness, idle leisure activities like television viewing, and a variety of other considerations.

4. One bathroom is a potential battleground.
If moving into a new place, having two bathrooms is a good idea. Women especially treasure their own bathroom as their personal, private space.


The full July 2007 Pew Research Center report, “As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors” may be downloaded at

Essay: “The Future of Marriage in America” by Dr. David Popenoe can be downloaded at

Information related to California family law litigation, collaborative divorce, and divorce mediation may be found at

About the Author: Bruce McCracken is a seasoned journalist and senior analyst for FAO Research. McCracken has an MA in communications from the University of North Texas.