Romance Redux

Using science to understand and improve relationships.

8 Steps You Should Take Before Living with Your Partner

How to cohabit happily ever after

Is living together before marriage a good idea?
the big move

"Do you think my boyfriend and I should live together?" my client asked. I could tell from her bloodshot eyes that she'd been pondering the question all night.

What scares you the most?" I asked

"Frankly," she said, smiling weakly, "I'm afraid it'll ruin our relationship."

I knew she wasn't exaggerating. For many couples, living together is simply the next logical step in the progression of intimacy. There's no handwringing, no tortured internal debate. But for Sharon, the whole prospect had been terrifying from the start. She'd had more than a few bad relationships, and the last one had died a slow, painful death over the course of three long years, in a tiny apartment that seemed even more suffocating when she and her boyfriend were fighting. So she had good reason to be scared. And because I knew the research, the very fact that she had so many misgivings was more than enough to give me pause as well.

Playing House or Playing with Fire?

Prior to 2000, many people might have advised Sharon against moving in with her boyfriend, no matter how well they'd been getting along. The research findings on premarital cohabitation were dismal. In the US, living together before marriage was associated with lower marital satisfaction, lower commitment among men, poorer communication, higher marital conflict, higher rates of wife infidelity, and higher perceived likelihood of divorce. Hardly a ringing endorsement for shacking up. But in 2005, Psychology Today featured an excellent article, reviewing the potential dangers of living together before marriage, and by then, the view was clearly changing. Researchers like Scott Stanley had begun to paint a far more balanced picture of previous findings. Some cohabitors, it seems, are more equal than others, with one group showing all the telltale signs of disaster that previous research had revealed, and another, luckier group, living happily ever after. The difference between the two came down to their state of mind.

Flash forward to 2011, and it's now clear that a person's attitude toward the decision to cohabit has everything to do with their relationship's success or failure. If both partners show an active and clear commitment before deciding to live together, by say, getting engaged, they seem to do just as well as people who get married before making a home together (see, for example, research here and here). In fact, for women who make a conscious, careful decision to cohabit, living with their partner before marriage may actually reduce the risk for divorce. This is serious business, though–no room for waffling; serially cohabiting women have twice the divorce rate of women who only live with the man they later marry. Repeated attempts to "try" living with someone may reflect a general reluctance to commit. The success gap between committed and uncommitted (or noncommittal) partners serves as a cautionary tale. Couples who slide into cohabitation before they feel ready could be sounding the death knell for their relationship.

Why Living in Sin isn't for the Faint of Heart

The dangers of mindlessly drifting into cohabitation--whether from a sense of economic pressure, a desire to "test" the relationship, or worries about living alone--have become increasingly clear. Living together is an active long-term commitment, like having children, and without the proper preparation and nurturance of your relationship, you could be doing yourself and your partner more harm than good. The reason may, in part, have to do with the many pressures an unmarried couple still faces.

It's easy to forget that "shacking up" used to be viewed as the act of a reckless counterculture and–at least in the eyes of some religious communities– the province of "Godless rebels." This history isn't remote by any means. As recently as 2003, the California State Senate voted to preserve a 113 year old law that made it a crime for an unmarried couple to live together "openly and notoriously," and in 2005, seven states still considered unmarried cohabitation outright criminal– "a lewd and lascivious act." Laws like this are a stark reminder that the problems cohabitors face don't exist in a vacuum. As more and more people choose to live together before marriage (a trend that has been on the rise since the 1970's), these more conservative attitudes may become less and less common. But until that time, many unhitched cohabitors still face lingering societal pressures, and some of them aren't particularly subtle, like the bad reputation that longer term, unmarried cohabitation continues to have in the press and the culture at large. Who among us, for example, hasn't wondered when our friends or relatives who've been living together all these years will finally "settle down" and get married? (In reality, duration of cohabitation, alone, seems to have no implications for a couple's success or failure) For all these reasons, some cohabiting couples wind up cut off from important supports, with even their own family members reluctant to offer financial help or advice. In extreme cases, one or both members of the couple are either rejected or excluded by their partner's parents (not as rare as one would hope). As cohabitors, their relationship isn't taken quite as seriously–a fact that can have important implications for the livelihood of any couple (the support of friends and family for a partnership is a strong predictor of success). Given these many cultural and emotional obstacles, is it any wonder that couples wavering in their commitment often witness the demise of their relationship once they start living under the same roof?

8 Steps You Should Take before Living Together

There's no question at this point that that living together is a decision not to be taken lightly. True, it can kick off a rich, new phase in your relationship, but it can just as easily spell the end of things if you're not careful. You'd be wise to take some important steps before you make the move.

1) Have the hard conversations now. If you have concerns about cleanliness, chores, general upkeep, or even who's welcome when you're not there, you'd better talk now. If you're afraid this will create tension, then think twice about living together. You'll have to face the problems sooner or later, whether you talk about them or not, so if they're a deal-breaker, your silence won't save the relationship. You can start by talking about your readiness to live together. If you can't even broach that one, then you're better off waiting until you feel more certain about each other.

2) Consider how much you're willing to pay for a live-in partner. If you think you'll feel resentful picking up your partner's financial slack, then don't choose a place beyond their means. If you truly want to live together and you want a nice place, then realize you're subsidizing your partner so you can have both. That's your choice, and you don't have to make it.

3) Openly assess the choice. If your partner insists on paying more than you can afford, then say, "OK, but let's agree, right now, that if you start feeling resentful about money, we'll know it's not working." You've now agreed that any financial resentment signals the need for a new arrangement altogether–either separate places or one you can both afford.

4) Run trials. If possible, plan to spend at least a month in each other's place. Your habits will vary, depending on how much you feel like you're in your own space. Trials give you a chance to see how each of you truly lives, when you're feeling at home and when you're not (and you're likely to feel a mix of both at first). A recent University of Columbia study suggests that many young couples may be choosing this very solution, opting for "stayover" relationships where they spend three or more nights a week together while maintaining their own separate residences.

5) Pick your battles. Living with a partner involves negotiation, but it shouldn't be constant. If little, low-impact quirks (cap on the tooth paste, anyone?) are getting on your nerves, consider solutions that don't depend on your partner changing (you can buy a tube with the cap attached now). Bear in mind, you probably have a thousand quirks of your own that your partner may have to adjust to, so don't ask for changes unless you're prepared to work on some yourself.

6) Name your contribution. When it comes to chores, we're often blind to what others do and acutely aware of our own contribution. To make matters worse, some chores are less visible than others (dusting and vacuuming sometimes go unnoticed.) So decide what you want to do and state out loud or record on paper what you've done. If one of you prioritizes less visible chores, then at least they won't go unnoticed.

7) Stake a claim. If you're moving into your partner's place, think about (and then discuss) how you might put your own, personal stamp on the place--some new items, some decoration, a desk, etc.  If you encounter resistance, pay close attention: how is this going to be a shared space if you can't bring something of yourself to it?

8) Maintain your independence. Moving in shouldn't mean you stop living independently. If you lose what you enjoy, you lose yourself. Separate experiences and friendships are what make you unique, so keep them in your life after the move.

In the past, living together before marriage was considered a potentially perilous choice, and people spoke in hushed tones about the couple next door who continued to live in sin. But in the new millennium, even after religion, for many, started losing its grip on our judgments about matters of love, science seemed poised to replace the previous moral framework, warning us about the psychological and emotional dangers of living together out of wedlock. 

We know a little more now. Working hard on your relationship, including making a clear commitment,  is probably the best predictor of success, whether you start that work before or after you've chosen to live under the same roof. As for Sharon, she opted for stayovers before making the leap to cohabitation. She was wise to do so. She and her boyfriend had broken up by the end of the year. 

If you like my posts, let me know! Subscribe to receive new articles via Email or RSS, and connect with me on facebook and twitter. I frequently respond to comments and questions there. And feel free to check out www.drcraigmalkin.com for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book in progress. 

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Note: The individuals depicted are a composite of many people and experiences. All names and identities have been disguised to preserve confidentiality. 

Craig Malkin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who taught and trained at Harvard Medical School.

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