Couples today are getting married later in life than their parents did. In 1970, the average man was 23.2 at the time of his first marriage, while the average woman was 20.8, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, the average ages are 29.8 and 28, respectively—an increase of almost a decade in the past 50 years. It's clear that people are getting married older, but did you know that it's also more common than ever for couples to date and live together for years before tying the knot?
"Many couples are both working and building their careers and are choosing to postpone weddings due to the time and effort involved," says Rebecca Hendrix, a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist.
Meet the Expert
Rebecca Hendrix is a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist with over 12 years of experience. She has a master's degree in counseling psychology from the University of Santa Monica and has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).
As the cultural view of marriage shifted from co-reliance and obligation toward love and personal satisfaction after the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s, couples began delaying marriage and spending more time enjoying their relationships while they achieved their personal goals.
Most couples date for two or more years before getting engaged, with many dating anywhere from two to five years. Once the question is popped, the average length of engagement is between 12 and 18 months.
Average Length of a Relationship Before Marriage
While responses are clearly varied, data supports that the average length of a relationship before marriage is between two and five years. But just because couples are delaying marriage doesn't mean they aren't creating lives together. It's more common than ever for couples to live together before getting married, and it's more socially acceptable, too. "Most couples I see live together on the path towards marriage," says Hendrix. "There are a few who have lived together for a long time, consider themselves ‘married but without the paper,’ and might only get married if they have a child." Findings from the Pew Research Center's 2019 survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. adults echo this statement, with two-thirds of married adults who lived with their spouse before tying the knot saying their cohabitation was a step toward marriage.
Further, about half of survey respondents said couples who live together before marriage have a better chance of having a successful marriage than those who don’t, and 69% said cohabitation is acceptable, even if the couple does not plan to get married. The report also said that among adults ages 18 to 44, 59% have lived with an unmarried partner at some point in their lives.
When asked if couples should live together before marriage, Hendrix says, "It’s a personal choice. If they have only long-distance dated and are considering marriage, then I advise they spend some time living together so they can see how they do when around each other every day. What do they fight about? Can they repair after a fight?" She also says that if a couple is engaged and only one partner seems motivated to get married soon, they should get on the same page about having the wedding before deciding to move in together.
Things to Consider Before Marriage
People are putting off marriage longer for economic reasons. "Marriage is a big expense. Many find the economy unstable and their jobs not secure and are hesitant to spend savings or their parents' money on a big wedding," says Hendrix. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that roughly half of never-married adults ages 18 to 29 cite financial instability as a major reason why they are not married. That makes sense, considering the national average cost of a wedding ceremony in 2018 was $44,105, according to the Brides American Wedding Study. With student debt rates higher than ever—Americans owe over $1.64 trillion in student loans—paying those off or at least making a dent in them is something many would like to accomplish before saying “I do.”
It's not just about the money, though. Hendrix says she asks couples to ensure they can answer "yes" to these three questions before deciding to get married: Do you have a way of handling conflict that works for both of you? Can you make yourself happy with this person? Are you invested in their happiness? "A successful marriage requires a lot of work, and it's like driving a car—you need two hands on the wheel. If one person stops driving, the car will veer off the road," she says. "It's not easy to just walk away once you're married, so it's extremely important to be able to resolve conflict in a way that's sustainable."
Once a couple does decide to get married, though, it tends to lead to higher rates of satisfaction than just living together. The Pew Research Center's 2019 study found that 80% of married adults said they feel closer to their spouse or partner than to any other adult, compared to just 55% of cohabitators.
"When two partners choose marriage, they are saying, unconsciously, ‘We are on the same page about this relationship, want the same things, and will be there for each other when things get tough.’ This provides a level of security, which in turn allows each to feel more emotionally safe and less anxious about the possibility of the other partner leaving," says Hendrix.
United States Census Bureau. "Historical Marital Status Tables." November 22, 2021.
Pew Research Center. "Key findings on marriage and co-habitation in the U.S." November 6, 2019.
Pew Research Center. "As U.S. marriage rate hovers at 50%, education gap in marital status widens." September 14, 2017.