Sociologist Arielle Kuperberg conducted new data analysis exclusively for this CCF briefing report that shows how cohabitation has changed from 1956 to the present. This new brief also includes findings from her forthcoming journal article in Marriage and Family Review. Historian Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s research director, reflects on what Kuperberg’s discoveries tell us about the state of close relationships in this interview on American Intimacy in Times of Escalating Inequality.

The most common path to marriage these days includes cohabitation, according to research presented to the Council on Contemporary Families by sociologist Arielle Kuperberg (UNC-Greensboro). In “From Countercultural Trend to Strategy for the Financially Insecure: Premarital Cohabitation and Premarital Cohabitors, 1956-2015,” Kuperberg reports how cohabitation raised eyebrows forty years ago. She shows that in the past decade, though, an overwhelming majority of Americans approve of it. There’s an asterisk: For a highly religious minority for whom “direct marrying” might be preferable, living together before marriage has as much to do with economic resources as with values. Kuperberg’s report offers three big findings:

Cohabitation before marriage is the norm. Kuperberg reports that 70 percent of marriages start with living together. Furthermore, only 17 percent of Americans disapprove of “premarital cohabitation.” And it is with good reason, she shows, since cohabitation has ceased to be a risk factor for divorce.

Since it’s so common, who is least likely to cohabit least before marriage? College graduates—who married directly 40 percent of the time between 2011 and 2015, twice as often as people without a college education. To be clear: A majority within all educational groups—including college graduates—cohabit before marriage. Not only do less-educated people cohabit more; Kuperberg notes that “working-class couples move in together earlier in their relationships than college-educated couples, often because of financial difficulties or housing needs.”

More religiously observant people are the most likely to be direct marriers—but only if they can afford it.Among highly religious college graduates, only 35 percent cohabited before getting hitched (versus 60 percent overall). Yet, equally religious people who did not have a high school degree lived together before marriage 97 percent of the time. The greater practice of premarital cohabitation among people with less education—and most likely lower incomes—may have to do with access to resources.

Cohabitation is no longer a countercultural trend, but instead is an unremarkable practice. In the past, worry about propriety and reputation created strong cultural pressures against living together before marriage. That is no longer the case. Now, economic inequality seems to shape the choices of religiously observant people with low levels of education, who tend to have lower incomes than equally observant people who have completed college. What Kuperberg’s study adds up to is that there may be less choice about close relationships than meets the eye today.


Arielle Kuperberg, Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Sociology and Cross-Appointed Faculty in the Women and Gender Studies Program, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro;

Stephanie Coontz, Professor of History and Family Studies, The Evergreen State College,; 360-556-9223.