You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more people today are moving in with their significant others than they were a generation ago. What is a little more surprising, though, is just how much that number has jumped even in just the past handful of years: Around 18 million adults in the U.S. were in cohabiting living situations in 2016, up 29 percent from 2007. But while there’s plenty of research out there on marriage in the U.S. — who’s doing it, and when, and with whom — our understanding of unmarried cohabiters isn’t as fleshed out.
But a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adds a little more to the picture. From 2011 to 2015, the authors interviewed people between the ages of 18 and 44 from a nationally representative pool of around 6,700 men and 8,300 women. Within the study sample, around 17 percent of women and 16 percent of men were living with, but not married to, a significant other — and as a group, there were a few things they tended to have in common.
The study didn’t take future plans into account, meaning it didn’t distinguish between the couples who saw cohabitation as a pitstop before marriage and those who intended to never marry. Still, there were a few things that cohabiters tended to have in common: Compared to both married people and couples that didn’t live together, cohabiters were generally to be poorer and less educated, more likely to have become sexually active before age 18, and more supportive of people living together before marriage and raising a child outside of it.
According to Arielle Kuberberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and a researcher with the Council On Contemporary Families, the income and education gaps can be traced back in large part to the fact that plenty of people set milestones for themselves to hit before tying the knot — they want to have a certain amount saved, or they want to pay off their loans, or they want to finish a degree.
In past research on people who live together, “one of the things they found is that financial stability is really important to couples before they enter marriage,” says Kuperberg, who wasn’t affiliated with the CDC study. “So couples want to pay down debt, maybe finish their education.” That also, she adds, helps explain why cohabitation is on the rise: because that financial stability is becoming harder for younger people to attain.
As for the other two findings, Kuberberg says, “that has to do with who is more likely to live together”: It makes sense, she explains, that as a group, they became sexually active earlier in life — the people who live with their partners are going to be more open-minded about premarital sex than people who would only move in together after marriage. And of course cohabiters are going to be more supportive of a life choice they themselves have made.
As time goes on, in fact, people who don’t support the idea of cohabiting may find themselves increasingly in the minority. “It’s definitely become less stigmatized over time,” Kuperberg says. “We’re kind of in the second generation of people living together before marriage … Now it’s almost unusual if you don’t live together before marriage. People will be like, Are you really ready to marry someone if you haven’t lived with them before?”
You may have heard the opposite, in fact — that living together before getting married ups the risk of divorce — but in 2014, Kuperberg published a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family debunking that idea. While the couples in her study who moved in together first did end up splitting at higher rates than those who didn’t, Kuperberg found that the culprit was actually age, not living situation: “Moving in or marrying at too young of an age tends to lead to higher divorce rates,” she says, “not the cohabitation itself.”
Which, like the CDC study, adds more weight to the idea that cohabiters are a group worthy of more research time and attention. “I think the family is place where there’s a lot of mythology going on in society where people have a lot of opinions about what it should be, and it’s interesting to see what people believe is happening versus what’s actually happening,” she says. “And that helps us make more informed decisions in general, both in terms of policy and on a personal level.”