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Living Together Versus Marriage: Benefits and Risks Over the Long Run

When it comes to emotional well-being, young adults -- especially women -- seem to get as much of a boost from living with a partner as they do from marriage, according to a recent study out of Ohio State University.
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When it comes to emotional well-being, young adults - especially women - seem to get as much of a boost from living with a partner as they do from marriage, according to data collected by Sara E. Mernitz and Clair Kamp Bush, co-authors of a recent study out of Ohio State University. The most surprising finding of this study is that women appear to benefit more from cohabitation than men do.

Cohabitation - living together without the commitment of marriage - is on the rise. Since about two-thirds of couples seem to live together outside of marriage, cohabitation simply doesn't carry the stigma it used to. This may free women up to enjoy the companionship of their partner on a daily basis and perhaps the financial benefits of sharing a residence. Interestingly, women who gave birth showed significant decreases in emotional distress compared to those who didn't have a child (among women who chose cohabitation) in the Ohio State University study.

Since young adults are increasingly living with their significant others before, or instead of tying the knot, Mernitz and Kamp Bush's study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology is promising. Yet what about the stability of cohabitating couples over time?

According to Scott Stanley, in Is Living Together All it's Cracked Up To Be? Mernitz and Kamp Bush's findings may be misleading. He posits that it's not surprising that cohabitating couples experience a gain in emotional well-being since couples who move in together spend more time together (and perhaps have more sex) which can give them a boost. However, Stanley, who is a distinguished expert on families, concludes that Mernitz and Kamp Busch's study can't speak to long-term differences between cohabitation and marriage because it was based on measurements in a two year increment and not trends over time. For instance, they didn't analyze the relationship quality of couples over transitions such as having children.

Given this new information about the possible benefits of co-habitation and the controversy surrounding long-term outcomes, it's a good idea to examine your fears and ask questions before making this important step. Although increasing numbers of individuals report less social stigma about cohabitation, many of the people who I've counseled ask these key questions: will living together lead to marriage and will it increase my risk of breakup or divorce?

Unsurprisingly, there aren't any easy answers to these questions. But one thing is for certain, researchers have found that before you decide to live with someone, it is incredibly important that you and your partner are on the same page. Dr. John Curtis, author of Happily Unmarried and a marriage and family counselor, writes about the importance of couples discussing expectations before moving in with their partner. He states that the fundamental difference between men and woman according to a recent Rand Study is that many women view living together as a step towards marriage while many men see it as a test drive.

A common phenomenon, according to Meg Jay, author of "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter," is the concept of "sliding not deciding" to move in together. What this means is that a couple may bypass discussions about why they're cohabitating and they gradually start spending more time sleeping over - eventually moving in together. Jay advises that it's crucial to sit down with your partner and clarify your expectations about the future, early in your relationship, if you want to enhance your chances of remaining in a committed relationship.

It is true that you could marry your partner without living together first, and still get a divorce. And it is also true that you could live together, get married, and be absolutely happy for the rest of your lives and never contemplate a breakup. However, recent research from the Rand Corporation demonstrates that couples who cohabitate are substantially less certain about the permanence of their relationships than those who are married; they report lower levels of complete commitment to their partner, especially if they are males. Results from this study also show that cohabiting relationships are associated with lower levels of reported closeness, love, and satisfaction in the intimacy dimension.

Since cohabitating couples may be more likely to break up than married ones and studies show that family instability puts children at risk for lowered emotional well-being, couples considering having children should be cautious about cohabitation according to Wendy Manning. She explains, "Only one out of three children born to cohabitating parents remains in a stable family through age 12, in contrast to nearly three out of four children born to married parents."

Research about whether living together before marriage increases your risk for divorce is less definitive. It's unclear if it actually increases the risk. If individuals who cohabitate are at a slightly higher risk for divorce, it may not be because they lived together before marriage. However, it could speak more to their mindset about commitment in general. Is it just greater acceptance of divorce in general? Is it that people who live together have a weaker commitment to the institution of marriage? It depends on who you ask.

Here are 4 topics to discuss with your partner before cohabitating:
1. What are your motivations for living together? Do you see cohabitating as a step toward marriage or a test drive?
2. What are your long term expectations regarding living together? This includes your values regarding fidelity, marriage, having children, etc.
3. What will you do if it doesn't work out?
4. What are your some of goals in five or ten years regarding your relationship, finances, careers, living arrangement, etc.?

Truth be told, there will probably always be controversy about the benefits of cohabitation over marriage. But the evidence presented by the Ohio State University study seems promising for couples who choose cohabitation over marriage. Yet it's important to recognize the limitations of Mernitz and Kamp Bush's findings in terms of the impact of family instability on children.

While there aren't any easy answers to the question of whether couples should cohabitate, being aware of the benefits and risks involved may help you make a more informed decision. It's essential to recognize that while life doesn't offer any guarantees; open communication and awareness of the issues which confront your relationship will give you the greatest chance of success.

Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry is pleased to announce the publication of Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-lasting Relationship (Sourcebooks).

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