Recently, people in the mainstream media have been talking about how cohabitation (living with a partner out of wedlock) impacts marriage, beginning with a New York Times article, continuing on Slate.com (here and here) and The Daily Beast. The question at hand concerns the so-called “cohabitation effect,”1 or the idea that the mere act of living together causes less marriage satisfaction later on and increases the likelihood that those marriages will end in divorce.
We thought it was time that Science of Relationships weighed in on this issue. First off, the research findings are far more mixed than some would have you believe. A recent analysis of data from 26 studies found some evidence for the “cohabitation effect.”2 In general, couples that cohabitate before marriage experience lower marital quality and divorce at a higher rate than couples that do not cohabitate. However, the paper notes that many studies did not distinguish between partners who cohabitate and then marry each other vs. those who cohabitate and marry other people (some people cohabitate with more than one partner in their lives). Amongst people who chose to live only with their future spouse before marriage, there was no increase in the divorce rate (although these couples did experience somewhat lower marital satisfaction). In addition, some studies in the meta-analysis did not do a good job of defining “cohabitation” in their surveys. For example, some questions simply asked couples about the frequency of overnight visits (e.g., 3, 4, 5 nights a week) without asking whether partners had actually moved in together, suggesting that not all studies properly distinguished between couples who were truly living together vs. those that spent a lot of time together but kept their homes separate.
Given the fact that there’s so much variability in defining what cohabitation is, it may not make sense to lump all cohabitating couples into one group. Recent research suggests there are different “types” of cohabitators.3 Couples who live together but are not in sync about where their relationship is headed (labeled “incongruent”) show the worst relationship quality among these different types of cohabitators. These are couples where one partner either feels pressured (feels things are moving too fast) or lagging (feels things are moving too slow) compared to the other partner. Incongruent couples report lower satisfaction, more conflict, and less positive communication than other couples. If they’re engaged, that seems to boost relationship quality, but not very much.
What matters more than engagement is whether both members of a couple are on the same page about their relationship; that is, they are both comfortable with the status and pace of their courtship. These couples appear nearly identical to typical non-cohabitating dating couples, even if they don’t have specific plans to marry but choose to live together anyway. In other words, cohabitating couples are not less satisfied than average dating couples and they don’t have more conflict either, as long as both partners are in sync (“congruent”) with regards to their status.
So the take home message here is that cohabitation isn’t necessarily bad (unless one partner wants to move faster than the other). If you’re thinking long-term about your relationship, or about living together, talk to your partner about where you see things going in the future, and make sure you’re both on the same page!
For more on this topic, see here (for a counterpoint) and here (for an alternative view to the counterpoint).
1Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 72(4), 906-918.
2Jose, A., Daniel O'Leary, K. K., & Moyer, A. (2010). Does premarital cohabitation predict subsequent marital stability and marital quality? A meta-analysis. Journal Of Marriage And Family, 72(1), 105-116.
3Willoughby, B. J., Carroll, J. S., & Busby, D. M. (2012). The different effects of “living together”: Determining and comparing types of cohabiting couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(3), 397–419.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their partners (and alternatives), and how dreams influence behavior. In addition, Dr. Selterman studies secure base support in couples, jealousy, morality, and autobiographical memory.