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By Age 24, Marriage Wins Out

PRINCETON, NJ -- Cohabitation is more prevalent than marriage among very young couples in the United States -- those in which at least one partner is 18 to 20 years of age. However, by age 21, marriage is just as common, and by age 24, young adults are more likely to be married than "living together."

These findings are based on combined data from 59 separate Gallup Poll surveys conducted since January 2006, including nearly 60,000 U.S. adults. This affords an ample number of cases to review the marital status of adults of every age from 18 through 90.

According to this immense data set, the practice of living together rises sharply between the ages of 18 and 20, while the rate of marriage is fairly minimal, in the 3% to 4% range. The pattern changes at age 21, when the percentage who are married jumps to 14%, roughly equaling the percentage living together with a partner.

The percentages married and cohabiting are about the same through age 23. But at age 24, the percentage married takes another big jump to 30%, overtaking cohabitation, which is at 20%. The rate of marriage continues to escalate through age 29, when it reaches 59%, while cohabitation gradually falls back to 14%. (The proportion who are married is at its peak among Americans aged 30 to 49: an average of 64% of U.S. adults in this age range are married.)

Rate of Living Together Adds Up Over Time

Although the overall percentage of American adults living together outside of marriage is fairly small -- averaging just 6% to 7% each year since 1999 -- Gallup polling has found that a large segment of currently married couples have lived together before marriage. According to a 2002 Gallup survey, this included more than half of married adults under age 50.

A Trial Period (but No Money-Back Guarantee)

The bigger picture, then, is that most couples use cohabiting not so much as an alternative to marriage, but as a trial period. And if that trial succeeds, they generally marry.

What is society's reaction to this practice? Do Americans believe that couples who live together before they walk down the aisle have better marriages? In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, about half (49%) of U.S. adults say partners who live together first are less likely to get divorced after they marry. However, nearly as many either believe such couples are more likely to get divorced (31%) or say it makes no difference whether a couple has lived together (13%). Thus, overall public opinion is mixed, though more positive than negative.

Societal perceptions about how living together affects children are also mixed, but more negative than positive. About half of Americans believe that having a household led by an unmarried couple has no effect on the children. The other half are much more likely to believe it has a negative than a positive effect: 38% vs. 12%.

A Serious Relationship?

More generally, 57% of Americans believe that two people who have lived together for five years are just as committed in their relationship as a couple that has been married for five years.

By contrast, only 42% of Americans believe that unmarried couples who have lived together for just one year are just as committed as those who have been married for one year; the slim majority are skeptical.

Generation Gaps

Not only is there a big gap between younger adults and seniors in terms of their lifestyle histories, but the two groups have very different views about the impact that living together has on couples and children.

When it comes to successful marriages, most adults aged 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 believe that living together before marriage reduces the chance of divorce. They see it as a positive. Older adults (those 50 to 64) are more likely to see cohabiting as a positive than a negative, while seniors are about equally divided.

In terms of children living in unmarried households, the majority of 18- to 29-year-olds say the arrangement has no impact on the children, as do about half of those 30 to 49 and 50 to 64. Relatively few in any of these age categories see it as a positive, while somewhat more see it as a negative. However, the majority of those 65 and older believe living together has a negative effect on the children involved.

Bottom Line

With at least half of U.S. adults under 50 having spent some time living together with their spouse before marriage, cohabitation holds possibly important implications for the future of marriage and child rearing.

However, unlike certain parts of Europe where marriage may be going out of style, in the United States, marriage still seems to be the favored long-term living arrangement for couples, even very young couples.

Survey Methods

The marital status results are based on 59 Gallup Poll surveys conducted by telephone between January 2006 and July 2008. The aggregated data set includes interviews with 59,512 national adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1/2 of 1 percentage point.

The results for attitudinal questions about living together before marriage are based on a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted by telephone July 25-27, 2008. For results based on the total sample of 1,007 national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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