Last week we were fortunate to publish a post on cohabitation guest-authored by two of the foremost experts on the topic. Their research addresses one of the more controversial and hotly-debated patterns of findings in the relationship science world: the marriages of couples that live together (cohabit) before tying the knot often fare worse than the marriages of couples that do not cohabit prior to marrying (commonly referred to as “the cohabitation effect”). There are a number of possible explanations for this effect, (and remember, correlation does not equal causation), but the purpose of this follow-up post is not to dig into those explanations (for now). Rather, I want to put the authors’ key conclusion in context for all those who might be second-guessing their decision to shack up after reading this post.
Here is the key finding from their summary:
"For example, after starting to cohabit, partners reported more negative communication, lower satisfaction, and more physical aggression over time."
Let’s take a close look at the data behind this conclusion. Briefly, for their analysis, the authors made use of a large dataset of over 1,000 individuals who were in heterosexual dating relationships. What was particularly great about this dataset is that about 1/3 of the sample was cohabiting (but not married) when the study began whereas the other 2/3rds of the sample was not living with their partners, and the participants were followed up over time. As a result, the research team could do two things that hadn’t been done previously. First, they could compare relationship outcomes (i.e., communication, satisfaction, and physical aggression) in cohabiting daters and non-cohabiting daters. Second, they could look at how those outcomes change after couples start to cohabit. In other words, by following these two types of relationships over time, they could actually test how variables like communication change after people start living together. Thus, their analysis was both cross-sectional (i.e., comparing non-cohabiting daters with cohabiting daters at the same time) and longitudinal (i.e., looking at changes over time in the non-cohabiting daters from before to after they do cohabit).
With that in mind, let’s break down their findings.
As the researchers note (and provide an excellent discussion of), cohabiting couples reported more ‘negative’ communication than did non-cohabiting couples. For example, cohabiting couples more strongly endorsed items like “Little arguments escalate into ugly fights with accusations, criticisms, name-calling, or bringing up past hurts.” How much more strongly? On a 1 (never or almost never happens) to 3 (frequently happens) scale, cohabiting individuals averaged 1.79 versus 1.60 for non-cohabiting couples. Put another way, couples that live together engage in more negative communication tactics slightly more than do those that do not live together. In addition to the explanations provided by the authors, it’s also fair to assume that cohabiting couples have more opportunity to argue and interact negatively. Why? Because they live together. More time together = more opportunity for conflict. Not surprisingly, the longitudinal evidence for the effects on negative communication were similar: when individuals start living with partners they engage in slightly more negative communication. Statistically speaking, the difference is small – i.e., there’s a real difference, but a very small one.
Does cohabiting make couples less satisfied with their relationships? If you consider participants' reports of satisfaction, on a 0-6 scale, with 6 meaning “perfectly happy”, cohabiting daters scored a 3.99 whereas non-cohabiting daters were at a 4.19. A difference? Sort of. Here’s the rub...after you account for control variables (i.e., other factors that may have an influence on relationship satisfaction), the analysis tells a very different story. Specifically, here’s what the authors state in their paper: "That is, without control variables, those who were dating reported significantly higher relationship satisfaction, but with control variables, those who were cohabiting reported higher satisfaction." (emphasis added). Why do we care about analyses with control variables that account for other factors? Well, because relationships are complex – a lot of factors (all working together) influence any particular outcome. Consider relationship length. It is well-established that relationship satisfaction generally declines over time (hence the phrase, for example, “honeymoon phase”). As it turns out, cohabiters have often been in longer relationships than non-cohabiters. Thus, it’s important to compare outcomes (in this case, satisfaction) while accounting for factors like relationship length (or having kids, which is also more likely for cohabiters), and that more appropriate analysis actual comes out in favor of cohabiters. This isn’t just a cross-sectional aberration. If you look at how satisfaction changes from before to after couples cohabit (i.e., the subset of participants that make up the longitudinal sample), satisfaction generally increases prior to cohabitation and then levels off (i.e., it does not change). Thus, in my humble opinion, it’s kind of hard to really say that cohabiters report lower satisfaction. If anything, when you look at things in context, and consider the role of other important factors, their analysis suggests the opposite.
Okay, so what about physical aggression? Again, when you include relevant control variables (e.g., relationship length, presence of children, etc.), there are no differences in reports of physical aggression between non-cohabiting daters and cohabiting daters. Now, in all fairness, if you ignore the control variables, there is a slight difference. What is the nature of that difference? Well, physical aggression was measured with 5 items (e.g., I pushed or shoved my partner) on a 0 (this has never happened) to 7 (more than 20 times in the past year) scale. Cohabiting daters scored, on average, a 0.56 on this measure versus a 0.37 for non-cohabiting daters. In other words, both groups scored very low on the measure overall, with the most common response for both groups being (by far) this has never happened. That’s right, the vast majority of individuals in both groups did not commit minor acts of physical aggression, and the very small raw difference was not statistically significant when the analyses accounted for other important factors. If you look at the longitudinal data, you do see a slight rise in reports of physical aggression (but still, generally, very low levels), but levels do not increase over time after couples start cohabiting. Thus, any minor increase in frequency of physical aggression is likely related to the slightly higher rates of negative communication, which comes from increased time spent together. Granted, any physical aggression is bad physical aggression. My analysis is not meant to make light of or justify even very small levels of aggression. Rather, my point is simply that the numbers don’t indicate that cohabiting makes people more aggressive.
What does all this mean? We may have some different takes and interpretations of the overall pattern of data in their analysis, but Drs. Rhoades and Stanley are correct --- deciding whether or not to live together with a partner is definitely a question worth asking. And you should certainly think hard about why you’re asking that question. If you’re asking because you’re worried about compatibility issues, then you might want to hold off (see our post on this). Because once you start living together, as noted last week, you might find yourself on a slippery slope to a marriage that does not have much of a fighting chance. As Drs. Stanley and Rhoades have eloquently put it, you’ll find yourself sliding into marriage rather than deciding to get married (see Dr. Stanley's blog). Now, if you’re feeling good about your choice of a mate, and shacking up serves a purpose as you get your ducks in a row before getting married (or otherwise proclaiming your commitment to your partner), then you’re probably safe proceeding. It won’t always be easy; as I note above, living together creates more opportunities for conflict (and different types of conflict). But if you’re not ready for a little conflict, then you’re not ready for a relationship.
Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He's a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.