Living together before marrying is now a common choice for many people. In 1975 only 16% of couples lived together prior to marriage, but in 2001 the percentage had risen to 72%. There are many reasons why people choose this path, but one reason is the expectation that this will increase the likelihood of a successful relationship. "They think 'try before you buy' minimises the risk of divorce" says University of Queensland researcher, Belinda Hewitt.
In a paper presented in October 2006, Hewitt examines the subsequent divorce rate of couples who cohabited prior to marriage and those who did not, and concludes that couples who live together are significantly more likely to divorce - 72% more likely in 1975, reducing slightly to 63% more likely in 1995. She concludes: "cohabiting before marriage is not an effective strategy for minimising the risk of marriage breakdown." However she concedes that the risk appears to be diminishing slowly, so that at some future time the risk of marriage breakdown may be the same in the two groups.
Hewitt speculates on why this is so, and concludes that one of the likely reasons may be "differences in values and beliefs" between the two groups. "Those who cohabit ... are less conventional in their attitudes towards relationships and marriage or have lower levels of commitment to marriage" - religious beliefs or membership of ethnic minority communities may be reasons for this difference in attitude. Another reason given by other experts is that "attitudes towards acceptance of divorce were more positive after a period of non-marital cohabitation than they were prior".
Two other aspects of marriage have recently been reported.
- Another paper co-authored by Belinda Hewitt reported that "women in indirect marriages (marriages that are preceded by a period of cohabitation) spend less time on housework than women in direct marriages (marriages without a preceding period of cohabitation)."
- In an article in several Australian newspapers Jacqui Taffel reported on a slight trend for married couples to live apart to reduce the tensions of sharing the same space while still maintaining the relationship.
It seems that we are in the middle of a huge "real time" experiment in relationships and marriage, with sometimes unpredictable outcomes.