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Does Having Kids Before Marriage Increase Divorce Risk?

Many millennials prefer to commit to having a family before having a spouse.

Maintaining a happy marriage after having a baby is hard. So hard, in fact, that millennials are increasingly forming families in reverse, opting to wed later in life and have children with one another long before they walk down the aisle. Until recently, such behavior was not only social taboo, it was thought to increase divorce risk. But now, a new study suggests that couples who have children together before getting married are no more likely to get divorced than couples who go about it the traditional way.

In this generation, “couples are establishing their relationships and maybe considering marriage, but not worrying so much about marriage before starting a family,” study coauthor Kelly Musick of Cornell University told Live Science

The number of people deciding to get married has steadily declined over the past 45 years. Only about 70 to 75 percent of millennials are predicted to ever marry, compared to 91 percent of baby boomers, according to a one report. However, there’s evidence that the people who are getting married today are less likely to get divorced. And while fewer people are having kids across the board, for the first time ever there are more unmarried women under 30 having children than married women.

To get a better sense of what happens when couples marry before having children, Musick and her team analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comparing families who had babies between 1985 and 1995 to families who had babies between 1997 and 2010, which included nearly 6,000 couples all together. Before 1997, couples who had babies before marriage were more likely to marry, and then get divorced, than the general population. But after 1997, something changed. Couples who had children first were likely to get married eventually, and no more likely to get divorced than anyone else. Simply put, kids before marriage didn’t work last generation—but it’s working out just fine now. Perhaps even better.

A confluence of factors likely influenced this shift. “They’ve got marriage on the back of their minds, but wait to take that step until they feel they’ve met these pretty high standards,” Musick says. “The increasing stability of relationships involving cohabitation and the declining importance of marriage timing relative to parenthood is consistent with waning social pressure to marry and the blurring of boundaries between marriage and cohabitation.” 

It’s important to note that the study did not compare planned pregnancies to unplanned ones. Marriages after unexpected surprises can be more challenging, sexologist and author Nikki Goldstein (who was not involved in the study) warns, because couples may feel more pressure to commit to each other. In a sense, getting together for the kids is similar to staying together for the kids. It doesn’t work. “Because there might not have been a long term commitment made before the baby is born, for some there might be questions,” Goldstein told Fatherly. “Like if they did not have a child together would they have stayed together. Sometimes issues like this can cause resentment between a couple.”

Still, for couples who consciously commit to having a family before having a spouse, enduring the struggles of parenthood together could make an eventual marriage stronger, she says — or at least not any weaker.

“In a way starting a family is more of a commitment,” Goldstein says. “It’s something that ties you to that person for the rest of your life.”