Many people believe that living together before marriage is a good idea because it helps couples test out whether they are a good fit and ready for marriage. Is he too messy? Does he leave the toilet seat open? Is her mother too involved? Is she a neat-freak? Can we manage finances well enough together? Many think that cohabiting will teach us something important about each other that we need to know before tying the knot. It’s counterintuitive then that some research indicates the living together before marriage, particularly before engagement, is associated with higher risks for divorce.1,2
A study we recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology followed up on this research to examine how moving in together changes a relationship.3 By examining relationships before and after couples started living together, we found that moving in together was associated with decreases in relationship quality in a number of areas. For example, after starting to cohabit, partners reported more negative communication, lower satisfaction, and more physical aggression over time. Couples did seem to experience a positive change in one area: the frequency of sex increased after moving together. Over time, however, the frequency declined. After about a year, the frequency of sex had dropped down to about where it was before moving in together.
We have a theory for why these negative shifts in relationship quality seem to occur when cohabitation begins. Cohabitation likely represents a time when partners are dealing with the kinds of issues dating couples tend to have conflict over and, at the same time, also dealing with issues that married couples tend to argue about, making it a particularly vulnerable time in a relationship for conflict. Dating couples seem to argue most about issues such as commitment, time together, and the future of the relationship while married couples tend to argue about issues that come with sharing a household, such as money, children, and the division of labor.4 Cohabiting couples, especially those who have not made a formal commitment to marry each other, may get a particularly high dose of all of these kinds of issues and at a time when they don’t necessarily have the commitment to the relationship or the skills yet to be able to tackle them well.
Being able to talk about and solve difficult topics is an important skill for couples, but cohabitation might not be the best way to learn about whether two partners are good at it together. Here’s why: the kinds of constraints that begin to add up when a couple starts living together likely make it harder to end a cohabiting relationship than a dating (non-residential) relationship.5 Comingling finances, signing lease, and adopting pets are examples of these kinds of constraints and evidence suggests that the accumulation of them is associated with a lower likelihood of break-up.6 To learn about each other and how to manage difficult issues well, it might be best to do it in a way that doesn’t make it harder to end the relationship. That is, it seems important to be able to get out of the relationship if it fails the kind of test we assume cohabitation provides.
So if you are considering cohabitation, based on this research, you might first talk with your partner about the reasons why you might want to live together (or not). Be sure you’re on the same page about your motivations and what living together might mean for the future of the relationship. If you’d like to find another way to learn more about each other, consider planning a trip together, spending time with one another’s families, or trying new activities together (e.g., hobbies, training for a race, volunteering). Another way to learn about managing conflict and building a great relationship is to attend some kind of relationship education program for couples. Many states have federal grants to be able to offer free workshops to couples and it’s a good way to assess the health of a relationship and also learn new skills that can be a good foundation for a lasting relationship. The website www.TwoOfUs.org is also supported by a federal grant and offers free relationship tools and advice.
1Jose, A., O’Leary, D. 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. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00686.x
2Stanley, 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. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00738.x
3Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358. doi: 10.1037/a0028316
4Storaasli, R. D., & Markman, H. J. (1990). Relationship problems in the early stages of marriage: A longitudinal investigation. Journal of Family Psychology, 4(1), 80-98.
5Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3729.2006.00418.x
6Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Should I stay or should I go? Predicting dating relationship stability from four aspects of commitment. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 543-550. doi: 10.1037/a0021008
Dr. Galena Rhoades - Website/CV
Dr. Rhoades' research focuses on romantic relationship development and functioning and the related implications for children and adults. She is interested in both basic-science and applied research and her research projects include studies on commitment, cohabitation, effects of conflict and family instability on children, domestic violence, effectiveness of relationship education, mechanisms of change in couple interventions, infidelity, military couples, and relationship processes and psychopathology.
Dr. Scott Stanley - Website/CV
Dr. Stanley’s work focuses on commitment, romantic relationship development, linkages between cohabitation patterns and marital outcomes, communication, risk factors for divorce, and relationship education strategies for individuals and couples.