Do buying a car and choosing a spouse have something in common? In recent decades, it seems that they do. A simple test drive allows buyers to decide if they like how a vehicle handles, what it feels like to sit in the seat, if they can see over the steering wheel, and if the ride is smooth enough. Living with a romantic partner prior to marriage is thought by many to offer the same benefits: Does your partner handle life well? Can you still see a future with him or her? Do you communicate well in the same house? These seem like logical questions that should be answered by living with a potential spouse prior to marriage—and yet, couples who live together before marriage are actually more prone to marital troubles and divorce than those who don't. Recent research has sought to determine why.
Premarital cohabitation has become increasingly common. In the past two decades, the number of women age 19 to 44 who have cohabited increased by 82 percent. In 1987, one-third of women cohabited, compared with three-fifths from 2009 to 2010. Increases like this can be seen for every age group. Among all women 19 to 44 today, 23 percent are in cohabiting unions, twice the percentage of 20 years ago.1
While much research has suggested that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced (or at least, to be unhappy in their marriages), the findings are somewhat mixed, and researchers are trying to unravel the mystery of this negative “cohabitation effect."
There seem to be 3 primary possible explanations for the phenomenon:
1. Cohabiting couples have been together longer.
The first explanation is that cohabiting couples have simply been in their relationships longer by the time they marry, as compared to those who marry without living together first. Across the board, there is a decline in marital satisfaction during the early years of marriage3, and cohabiters are farther along this track at the start of their marriages.
Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman found that cohabiters were less satisfied than dating couples, but these effects were diminished when age and length of the relationship were taken into account.4 However, differences in relationship length cannot fully explain the cohabitation effect.2,4
2. The kind of people willing to cohabit are different than others.
Some have argued that cohabiters may be more divorce-prone not because cohabitation causes relationships to fall apart, but because the type of individuals who choose to cohabit may already possess traits that make them predisposed to divorce. In a meta-analysis of 12 studies conducted between 1974 and 2000, Jose, O’Leary, and Moyer showed that cohabiters were less religious and less traditional, and more accepting of divorce.5 Also, there is evidence that those who choose to cohabit, rather than marry, seem less committed in the first place6, and so they may have more difficulties due to doubts about their relationships that predate their decision to live together. A meta-analysis found negative correlations between marital stability and quality and cohabitation. However, when analyses focused solely on cohabitations with an eventual marriage partner, the negative effect on martial stability was greatly diminished.5
So, looking at the type of people who tend to serially cohabit as a whole, they seem to be more divorce-prone than those who have only lived with their eventual marital partners. Clearly, people choosing cohabitation differ from those who marry without living together first, and those differences could factor into the lower rate of marital stability found in cohabiters. However, these individual differences are also not enough on their own to fully account for the cohabitation effect.4
3. Living together really does damage your relationship.
The cohabitation effect, then, might result from the actual experience of cohabitation itself. Living together before marriage may cause couples to value commitment less or to become less interested in marriage.2 When couples marry, they typically become less and less likely to break up as the marriage continues, whereas cohabiters are just as likely to break up, even several years after moving in together, as they were when they first made the decision to cohabit.7 This suggests that cohabiters do not find themselves on the same trajectory of increasing commitment that married couples do. In fact, cohabitation may change our attitudes toward eventual divorce. Compared to their attitudes prior to moving in together, those who cohabit report increased acceptance of divorce.8,9
Cohabiting couples may be especially prone to relationship difficulties. A study of couples who had been married less than two years showed that those who had cohabited had more negative interactions during a laboratory conflict discussion with their spouse.2 Rhoades, Stanley, and Markman argue that cohabiting may put a lot of stress on couples because they’re plagued by both the problems that dating couples face (jealousy, arguments about the level of commitment to the relationship) and the problems that married couples face (finances, dividing up household chores).10 They found that when couples made the transition to cohabiting from just dating, there were declines in relationship quality, including the use of more problematic conflict strategies.
But these negative effects of cohabitation might differ, depending on the starting point of the couple.
Studies have shown that those who move in together after getting engaged have more committed relationships4 and higher quality relationships in terms of aggression and other negative interactions11 than those who cohabit without getting engaged first. It seems that an engagement ring may serve as a buffer to future damages that may occur during a relationship test drive.
This "engagement effect" doesn’t always occur.4 But it is evidence that your attitudes toward a relationship and the goals of your cohabitation at the outset are likely to matter more than whether or not you cohabit. There are many reasons why couples move in together, and “test-driving” the relationship may not be the healthiest. Cohabiting couples who chose to live together in order to spend more time together tend to fair well. But if they move in to test the relationship, or because of convenience, then ambivalence and conflict can ensue.12,13 Similarly, Owen, Rhoades, and Stanley found that thoughtful decision-making about emotional processes and transitions in relationships led to higher levels of dedication to the partners and better relationship adjustment.14 Better communication about your thoughts and intents for moving in are vital to making the transition to cohabitation a positive one.
Overall, research has shown a consistent “cohabitation effect,” with those who choose to live together prior to marriage suffering from poorer quality relationships and greater likelihood of divorce. But like almost any rule, there are exceptions. Some will find cohabitation, ultimately, to be the downfall of their marriage. Some might find it to be the right decision. Still others will end up in a given relationship state regardless of how they spent their time together before marriage or engagement.
Ultimately, your goals and expectations heading into a cohabiting union seem to be the key determinants in the relationship’s future. If you’re using cohabitation like you would test drive a car…keep shopping.
This post was co-authored by Ellie Herman, a senior at Albright College.
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology.
1 Manning, W. D., & Cohen, J. A. (2012). Premarital cohabitation and marital dissolution: An examination of recent marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(2), 377-387. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00960.x
2 Cohan, C. L., & Kleinbaum, S. (2002). Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital cohabitation and marital communication. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(1), 180-192. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00180.x
3 Kurdek, L. A. (1999). The nature and predictors of the trajectory of change in marital quality for husbands and wives over the first 10 years of marriage. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1283-1296.
4 Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(1), 107-111. doi:10.1037/a0014358
5 Jose, A., Daniel O'Leary, K. K., & Moyer, A. (2010). Does premarital cohabitation predict subsequent marital stability and marital quality? A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(1), 105-116.
6 Wiik, K. A., Bernhardt, E., & Noack, T. (2009). A study of commitment and relationship quality in Sweden and Norway. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 465-477.
7 Wolfinger, N. H. (2005). Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages. New York: Cambridge University Press.
8 Axinn, W. G., & Thornton, A. (1992). The relationship between cohabitation and divorce: Selectivity or causal influence? Demography, 29, 357-374.
9 Thornton, A., Axinn, W. G., & Hill, D. H. (1992). Reciprocal effects of religiosity, cohabitation, and marriage. American Journal of Sociology, 98, 628-651.
10 Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348-358. doi: 10.1037/a0028316
11 Kline, G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. M. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(2), 311-318. doi:10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.1991
12 Tang, 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
13 Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). Couples’ reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233-258.
14 Owen, 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.