Should couples live together before they get married? If you ask people this question, they often have strong beliefs, one way or the other. Religious views aside, what can relationship science tell us about the pros and cons of pre-marital cohabitation?
First the Facts: How Common is Cohabitation?
Cohabitation (i.e., living together in a sexual relationship before marriage) is an increasingly common trend in United States. Today, most heterosexual couples live together before marriage. A survey of over 12,000 heterosexual women aged 15-44 between 2006 and 2010 showed that approximately half (48 percent) of women cohabitate prior to their first marriage (Copen, Daniels, & Mosher, 2013). This number is up from 34 percent in 1995.
In addition to frequency, the average cohabitation duration has increased. These days, the typical length of cohabitation has grown from 13 months in 1995 to an average of 22 months. Tracking cohabitating couples revealed that three years out, 32 percent were still cohabiting, 40 percent had transitioned to marriage, and 27 percent had dissolved (Copen et al., 2013).
Concerns about pre-marital cohabitation may be legit. Substantial evidence associates cohabitation with negative relationship outcomes. Pre-marital cohabitation is viewed as a risk factor for divorce as it predicts later marital instability, poorer marriage quality, and less relationship satisfaction (Kamp, Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003; Stanley et al., 2004). Compared to married couples, cohabiting couples argue more, have more trouble resolving conflicts, are more insecure about their partners’ feelings, and have more problems related to their future goals (Hsueh, Rhabar, Morrison, & Doss, 2009). These findings are concerning for couples considering pre-marital cohabitation, but a closer look shows a much more complicated picture.
Why Do People Cohabitate before Marriage?
First, why do people cohabitate? Turns out, unmarried couples have very different motivations for living together. For most people (61.2 percent), the number one reason to cohabitate is quite positive: they want to spend more time with the person they’re dating (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009a). Others cite that cohabitation makes financial sense (18.5 percent), that they want to test out the relationship (14.3 percent), or that they don’t believe in the institute of marriage (6 percent).
Cohabitating out of convenience (i.e., expired leases; financial sense) or to test a relationship can lead to problems down the road. In the former case, women tend to perceive the couple as having less relationship confidence and less dedication. In the testing situation, both men and women report more negative interactions, more psychological aggression, and less relationship confidence, adjustment, and dedication (Rhoades et al., 2009a). Such evidence suggests that differences in why people are cohabiting may be driving some of the associations between cohabitation and poorer relationship outcomes.
The Inertia Effect
Cohabitation is recognized as a strong predictor of marriage, in part because of the inertia effect (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). Once a couple cohabitates, a momentum towards marriage begins and it’s more difficult to break up because of the greater investment. The inertia effect is problematic when it drives a couple that would otherwise not have married, to become married.
Maybe this is why married men who cohabited before marriage are less dedicated to their wives than married men who did not first cohabitate (Stanley, Whitton, & Markman, 2004).
The inertia effect is only relevant to cohabiters who are not already engaged prior to cohabitation. Compared to those who are engaged before living together, those who aren’t are less satisfied in the relationships, report less relationship dedication, and less relationship confidence (Rhoades et al., 2009b). Interestingly, both engaged and non-engaged cohabiting couples tend to report less relationship dedication, less relationship confidence, and more negative communication compared to those who wait to live together until marriage.
Types of Cohabiting Couples
It’s hard to imagine that the relationship troubles associated with living together before marriage are universal for all cohabitating couples. So how to do we make sense of the patterns? Willoughby and colleagues (2012) chose to examine differences among cohabitating couples. They sorted couples into types based on 1) whether the couples were engaged or not, and 2) whether couple members agreed on their trajectory towards marriage.
The resulting categories of cohabiters were:
- Incongruent engaged cohabiters (47 percent). This category describes couples who are engaged but in disagreement over how quickly they’re moving towards marriage.
- Engaged cohabiters moving fast (13 percent). These cohabiters are engaged and in agreement that they are on the fast track towards marriage.
- Engaged cohabiters moving slow (12 percent). They may be engaged, but they agree they are not moving quickly towards a wedding day.
- Incongruent non-engaged cohabiters (20 percent). These individuals are not engaged and they differ in their views on the relationship’s future, i.e., if and when they will get married.
- Non-engaged cohabiters without marital plans (6 percent). As the name suggests, this group of cohabiters are in agreement that they have no plans in the work for marriage and do not necessary view cohabitation as a path towards marriage.
How happy and successful are the relationships defined by these categories? In general, being a fast or slow moving engaged couple predicted the highest relationship satisfaction. The couples with the least happiness and satisfaction were the incongruent engaged cohabiters and the incongruent non-engaged cohabiters.
Further, the non-engaged cohabiters without plans for marriage had the most doubts about their relationship stability, but it was the incongruent groups (engaged or non-engaged) that seemed to have the most relationship problems. Meanwhile, Incongruent non-engaged cohabiters as well as the non-engaged cohabiters without marital plans tended to report less positive communication patterns. Finally, the engaged cohabiters moving fast and the engaged cohabiters moving slow reported the least relationship conflict, not surprising since they also reported a high degree of relationship satisfaction (Willoughby et al., 2012).
So, in sum, what do we know about cohabitation? Is it a good idea?
As in most cases, the answer depends on the couple, but evidence points to a few patterns. First, we need to consider couples’ motivations for living together before marriage. Are they wanting to spend more time together, or are they unsure of the relationship and want to test it? Second, couples who cohabitate seem to be most successful when they’ve already committed to each other. Engaged couples who live together before marriage are not subject to the slippery slope of the inertia effect, which pushes two people who might otherwise not marry, to marry. The inertia effect may explain the heightened divorce rates associated with premarital cohabitation.
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Copen, C. E., Daniels, K. & Mosher, W. D. (April 4, 2013). First premarital cohabitation in the United States 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Report, 64, 1-15.
Kamp Dush, C. M. K., Cohan, C. L., & Amato, P. R. (2003). The relationship between cohabitation and marital quality and stability: Change across cohorts? Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 539-549.
Hsueh, A. C., Morrison, K. R., & Doss, B. D. (2009). Qualitative reports of problems in cohabiting relationships: comparisons to married and dating relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(2), 236-246.
Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009a). Couples' reasons for cohabitation associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30(2), 233-258.
Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009b). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: a replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(1), 107-111.
Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect*. Family Relations, 55(4), 499-509.
Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe i do interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 25(4), 496-519.
Willoughby, B. J., Carroll, J. S., & Busby, D. M. (2011). The different effects of “living together": Determining and comparing types of cohabiting couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27, 397-419.