Last August, exactly two years after my partner and I met, we got engaged. But unlike most soon-to-be newlyweds, we have not yet lived together. In fact, we will be engaged for almost a year before moving into our own place.
A few of my friends were surprised that my fiancé and I could commit to a life together without first sharing an apartment. In their eyes, cohabitation is important for allowing dating couples to “test drive” being married and identify lifestyle incompatibilities before making a formal long-term commitment. My grandparents and parents, on the other hand, were unfazed that we hadn’t yet lived together, and they even encouraged us to wait until the timing was right.
These conflicting messages made me question whether living together as a dating couple makes for a more well-adjusted marriage if the relationship is headed that way. Most researchers agree that living together before getting engaged has potential advantages and drawbacks, but are certain approaches to cohabiting better than others? To answer this question – and to understand why my friends (but not the older generations) expected my partner and I to live together sooner – I examined the latest research on cohabitation and its consequences for relationships.
Cohabitation Across the Decades
Research shows that in today’s age, living together is not a definite step towards marriage (see Figure 1)1. In fact, only 40% of people between 2006 and 2010 got married to the first person they lived with2. This number will likely continue to drop because it is becoming increasingly normal for people to live with different partners across their dating history (“serial cohabiting”).
Although fewer cohabitaters are eventually getting married, it is more and more common for romantic partners to live together before tying the knot. In fact, one study found that two thirds of first marriages between 2005-2009 involved premarital cohabitation3, an all-time high compared to years prior (see Figure 2).
Collectively, these data indicate that although cohabitation occurs before most marriages nowadays, marriage is becoming less and less of an end goal of cohabitating.1
When does cohabitation predict successful relationships?
The growing popularity of cohabitation explains why my friends deemed it a requisite for marriage. But for the goal of sustaining happiness as a semi-serious relationship potentially turns into a lifelong commitment, is there a benefit to cohabiting early on? One recent study of 280 cohabiting individuals found that people’s primary reasons for living together mattered for their relationship quality.4 Specifically, cohabiting for the purpose of spending time together was linked with greater relationship satisfaction, higher commitment, and lower conflict. In contrast, other reasons for cohabiting were associated with less desirable outcomes. People who reported living together to “test the relationship” reported greater ambivalence about the relationship, while those citing “convenience” as the main reason reported lower commitment – a risk factor for cheating. These findings mean that identifying specific motives behind wanting to live with someone is important in deciding whether cohabitation will likely help or harm the relationship.
Another study suggests that it’s important for both partners to be clear about their goals when it comes to making relationship decisions like moving in together. The researchers found that regardless of whether partners were dating, cohabiting, or married, those who reported engaging in more thoughtful decision-making processes (e.g., reflecting on the risks and benefits of the decision; communicating intentions) were more dedicated to their partners, more satisfied with their relationships, and less likely to cheat.5 In other words, cohabitation is more likely to confer positive relationship outcomes when partners are on the same page about the decision and they engage in proactive discussions about potential challenges.
The bottom line: Cohabitation is increasingly seen as a relationship milestone, but it doesn’t mean that engagement is around the corner. In fact, moving in with a dating partner for shortsighted reasons or just because you’ve been with them for awhile may invite problems later on. There may be value in cohabiting to spend more time with your partner on a daily basis, but when you anticipate spending a lifetime together, why rush?
1Guzzo, K. B. (2014). Trends in cohabitation outcomes: Compositional changes and engagement among never‐married young adults. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 826-842. doi:10.1111/jomf.12123
2Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., & Mosher, W. D. (2013). First premarital cohabitation in the United States: 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, No. 64. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
3Manning, W. D. (2013). Trends in cohabitation: Over twenty years of change, 1987–2010. Family Profile FP-13-12, Center for Family & Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH.
4Tang, C., Curran, M., & Arroyo, A. (2014). Cohabitors’ reasons for living together, satisfaction with sacrifices, and relationship quality. Marriage & Family Review, 50, 598-620. doi:10.1080/01494929.2014.938289
5Owen, J., Rhoades, G. K., & Stanley, S. M. (2013). Sliding Versus Deciding in Relationships: Associations With Relationship Quality, Commitment, and Infidelity. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 12, 135-149. doi:10.1080/15332691.2013.779097
Dr. Jana Rosewarne – Articles
Jana’s research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning.
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