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Wealth and religion stave off divorce

Hoping to avoid divorce? It helps if you're wealthy, religious, college-educated and at least 20 years old when you tie the knot. Couples who don't live together before marriage have a better shot at staying together, as do those whose parents stayed married.

By age 30, three in four women have been married, but many of those unions dissolve. Overall, 43 percent of marriages break up within 15 years, according to a government survey of 11,000 women that offers the most detailed look at cohabitation, marriage and divorce.

Black women are least likely to marry and most likely to divorce, with more than half splitting within 15 years. Asian marriages are the most stable, with whites and Hispanics in between.

Women are waiting longer to get married than they used to, and after a divorce, they are less likely to remarry than women once were. At the same time, couples are more likely to live together without getting married: Half of U.S. women had lived with a partner by the time they turned 30.

The survey, released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 70 percent of those who lived together for at least five years walked down the aisle.

But these marriages are also more likely to break up. After 10 years, 40 percent of couples that had lived together before marriage had broken up. That compares with 31 percent of those who did not live together.

That's partly because people who live together tend to be younger, less religious or have other qualities that put them at risk for divorce, said Catherine Cohan, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University. But that might not fully explain it, she said.

"Many people enter a cohabiting relationship where the deal is, "If this doesn't work out we can split up and it's no big loss because we don't have a legal commitment,' " she said. "The commitment is tenuous, and that tenuous commitment might carry over into marriage."

Still, many believe that living together is an essential testing period for a relationship.

"Most couples who decide to move in together do so because they take marriage very, very seriously. They want to be absolutely sure this is the right person before they say, "I do' for a lifetime," said Dorian Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston.

The report, based on 1995 data, found other groups facing a high risk of divorce, including:

+ Young people. Nearly half of those who marry younger than 18 and 40 percent younger than 20 get divorced. Over age 25, it's just 24 percent.

+ Non-religious people. Of those who don't affiliate with any religious group, 46 percent were divorced within 10 years.

+ Children of divorce. Women whose parents were divorced are significantly more likely to divorce themselves, with 43 percent splitting after 10 years.

+ Kids. Half of women who had kids before marriage were divorced in 10 years.

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