Everything You Want to Know About Living Together Before Marriage (But Are Too Afraid To Ask)

The Truth About Living Together Before Marriage

For anyone in a long-term relationship, these two statements might sound familiar:

"It's crazy to marry someone without living with them first. You need to test out the relationship!"

"If you want to marry him, don't even think about moving in. He'll have no reason to propose!"

Though opposite sentiments, both pieces of (often unsolicited) advice are strong opinions on the topic of whether you should -- or shouldn't -- live with your partner before marriage.

With an estimated 70 percent of U.S. couples cohabiting and all of the conflicting headlines out there, we looked at the growing body of research on cohabitation and the success of a subsequent marriage -- or likelihood of a marriage at all -- to explore possible answers to the question: Are you doomed to divorce or singledom if you live with a partner before marriage?*

First off, know that the fear of divorce is real.
The topics "cohabiting" and "divorce" are inextricable from one another. As it happens, one often considers both possibilities at the same time. Dr. Sharon Sassler, a professor and social demographer at Cornell University, found this to be the case in her 2011 study when she interviewed 122 people about moving in with a significant other. After evaluating their responses, Sassler noticed that two-thirds of the respondents expressed a fear of divorce, despite the fact that none of the questions specifically addressed divorce.

Even folks whose parents weren't divorced claimed they were cohabiting as a precursor to marriage in order to screen partners for divorce potential. But Sassler pointed out that most of the couples she studied did plan to eventually get married -- they just wanted to have a test run first.

But is "testing out" the relationship a bad idea?
The one problem with these test runs? When you sprint to cross one finish line, you might just accidentally keep running to the next one. This phenomenon, known by researchers as "relationship inertia," is when a couple living together ends up in a bad marriage because, hey, it's really hard to move out once you move in. Merging homes and investing in a joint living space can result in a lot of "sunk costs" that keep couples emotionally and financially invested in relationships that might have ended had the couple not cohabited.

In a 2009 study, Dr. Galena Rhoades, a Research Associate Professor at University of Denver, found that those who cohabited before marriage reported lower marriage satisfaction and more potential for divorce than couples who waited until they were engaged or married to make the big move. Through her research, Rhoades posits that the increase in cohabiting couples is resulting in marriages that simply never would have happened in a non-cohabiting society.

"It's not that everyone who moves in with their partner is going to be at risk for poor marital outcomes," Rhoades told The Huffington Post. "What we have found is that it's really the people who live with someone before they have a clear mutual commitment to getting married."

Rhoades suggested that couples who aren't sure about their relationship find ways other than cohabiting to "test out" the union. Going on a trip together or meeting each other's families are two ways to learn about your partner's daily habits, she said. Most importantly, Rhoades said that couples should have frank conversations before deciding to move in together: Matching expectations is crucial.

What about "sliding into" cohabiting?
Pamela Smock, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Research Professor at the Population Studies Center, agrees with Rhoades that couples should discuss why they're moving in together. But Smock told The Huffington Post that it's all too common for couples to "slide into" living together -- if you're spending five, then six, then seven nights together, one day you wake up et voila, you're cohabiting.

Plus, with all of the economic benefits to consolidating homes, it's pretty easy for couples to shrug their shoulders and say, "Why not?" rather than parse out what's best for their relationship at that moment, Smock said.

"It's what we call 'unplanned cohabitation,'" Smock explained. "Whereas scholars before were thinking that people were choosing between cohabitation and marriage, we discovered that it's not a rational choice."

Studies have shown that, while small, there's an increased risk of divorce for couples who move in before making that mutual commitment. After years in the field, Smock gleaned that by making a choice to move in, both members of the relationship will be happier -- especially women.

"Women, in particular, won't be feeling like they're being led along," she said. "There are still a lot of old-fashioned thoughts out there about relationships."

Unfortunately, gender roles may still be at play.
While every person's relationship goals differ, regardless of gender, studies have found that women are more likely to see moving in together as a step towards marriage, while men don't seem to have any long-term goals by cohabiting. Plus, in the same 2006 study, Smock found that men were more likely to see the downside of cohabiting as a form of "giving up their freedom." The pitfall for women? That age-old fear: Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

We may have made it through the sexual revolution, which both Smock and Rhoades credited as the precursor for the rise of cohabiting, but traditional views often exist right alongside this new type of living arrangement. A 2011 study at the University of Cologne in Germany found that women who cohabited with their partners were less happy than married women because, the researchers hypothesized, they believed they had "violated" normal behavior and were being "pitied" for failing to persuade their partners to marry them.

"We can speculate that in such societies, people tend to believe that a woman lives together with her partner out of wedlock not because she doesn't want to marry him but because he doesn't want to marry her," the researchers wrote.

But ultimately, don't let fear control your decision to move in or not.
Before you drive yourself crazy, know that there's no one-size-fits-all answer here. Relationships -- and the people in them -- are unique and ever-changing. Plus, it's such a new phenomenon that the norms are constantly shifting, too. These days, by the age of 20, one in four women between 15 and 44 will have lived with a man. By the time they're 30, three in four women will have done so.

What's more, research released this year found that, if you control for age, many of the previous studies predicting divorce for cohabiters were off the mark: Those who marry young, whether or not they were living together before marriage, have a higher chance of getting divorced. Go figure.

And with cohabitation lasting longer than ever -- 22 months on average -- it seems people are quite content carving out a new romantic path. Government studies have even found that 40 percent of cohabiting couples actually do marry within three years. "Shacking up" might just be the new step before marriage, after all.

"If you want to do a statistical model and predict who will get married, it’s people who are already living together who have the biggest chance," Smock said. "In some sense, cohabitation is supporting marriage, especially now that we find no effect on marital stability."

So whether or not you decide to live with your partner before marriage, know that it's not necessarily a direct path to divorce or eternal singledom. Hopefully, that'll make your decision a tad easier.

*In no way does this presuppose that all folks, women or men, want to (or should want to) get married. We're just addressing all of the rhetoric out there. In the end, there's no "right" thing to do (or want).

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