Time together

19th April, 2008

Dear Economist,
I have fallen in love with a wonderful man, and on Valentine’s Day he proposed to me. We’re planning to marry next summer. The question is: should we live together over the next year, or wait until we’re married? The financial impact is relatively small either way, and I am not afraid of scandal. I am just trying to work out whether some time living together is likely to make our marriage stronger or not.
Boston MA

Dear Elspeth,

For many years, theory pointed in one direction and evidence in the other. The theory – going back to Nobel laureate Gary Becker’s work in the 1970s – is that a period of cohabitation lets you learn more about one another and thus avoid a bad match. Your man may be charming on a date, but if he leaves his underpants lying around or eats toast over the sink to save washing up, forget it.

The overwhelming evidence, on the other hand, used to be that marriages preceded by cohabitation were more likely to break down – in the US, at least. The question is whether this was a causal relationship, or whether the cohabitation and the marital breakdown were caused by a third factor, such as social class or a lack of religious belief.

Fortunately, new empirical research from economist Steffen Reinhold suggests both that the relationship between cohabitation and divorce is not causal, and also that it has faded over time as more educated, middle-class couples choose to live together before marriage.

I recommend following Becker’s theory: learn about the marriage before it is too late by moving in together now. Keep an eye out for discarded underpants.

Also published at ft.com.

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