First Things First: Cohabitation -- good or bad?

Cohabitation has been a hot topic for several decades. In the '60s and '70s, very few couples lived together before marriage. Today, more than 60 percent of couples move in together before marrying.

Recently, the discussion has become more heated.

A New York Times article discussed the downside of cohabitation stating that couples who cohabit before marriage (especially before an engagement or clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages -- and more likely to divorce -- than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor touted new research from the Centers for Disease Control, which asked 22,000 men and women about marriage and divorce and what makes a good marriage. The results suggest that times have changed from the days when cohabitation before marriage signaled higher chances for divorce. The lead author of the study, Casey Copen, said that cohabitation is not playing as big a role in predicting divorce as it used to.

So does cohabitation harm your chances of getting married? Does it increase the risk of divorce?

"I would tell people to hit the pause button before they run out and encourage friends to start shacking up," said Glenn Stanton, author of "The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage." "There is a wealth of data that suggests that the significant negative impact of cohabiting has not disappeared into the ozone."

Stanton points out that the study referenced in the Christian Science Monitor was not a study on cohabitation, but an examination of first marriages in the United States.

"This is only one study in a long, impressive and robust body of research showing that cohabitation is generally ... associated with greater divorce risk in marriage," said Stanton. "The study actually acknowledges that it has been well documented that women and men who cohabit with their future spouse are more likely to divorce compared with marrieds."

Stanton cites one study that found the negative impact of cohabitation on marital quality and longevity did not wane as cohabitation became more socially acceptable.

Like many other things that have become more socially acceptable, this raises the question: Does the fact that cohabitation before marriage is more socially acceptable mean it is a good thing to do?

Smoking cigarettes was not only socially acceptable, it was cool for years. Then research revealed that smoking, or even breathing secondhand smoke, causes lung cancer. While not everybody who smokes gets lung cancer, the risk was great enough to make people think twice.

If a lifelong, healthy marriage is your goal, there is enough evidence to support that living together before marriage may put your relationship at risk.

Email Julie Baumgardner, president and executive director of First Things First, at