You may have already been warned about the potential pitfalls of living together before marriage. Numerous studies have shown that people who live together before they are engaged or married are at higher risk of divorce, compared to couples who don’t move in together until after they’re fully committed.1,2 Couples who live together before marriage also tend to have more marital difficulties, including less relationship satisfaction,3 more conflict,4 and worse communication.5
Despite these correlational data, there’s actually no causal evidence that living together “damages” good relationships. It doesn’t seem to be the case that sharing a roof before marriage is going to undermine the happiness that you and your partner would have otherwise shared. Instead, living together makes already problematic relationships more difficult to get out of. 6,7 Once living together, even unhappy couples are likely to stay together because they do not want to break their lease, split up their stuff, and so on.
Recent research suggests that this is a key reason why living together early on is associated with negative outcomes later on. Moving in together too early can increase people’s commitment to their relationships artificially, motivating them to carry on with a partner who they otherwise would have broken up with. When this happens, their eventual marriage is riddled with problems, because they were't a good match to begin with, and likely would not have wound up married if they hadn’t moved in together first.
If you’re in a relatively new dating relationship (think two years or less), it's likely that you don't yet know how compatible you are in a long-term sense. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t move in together. But it does mean that you should be on the look-out for these potential issues so that you can curb them. Here are two key tips to help you enjoy living with your partner while avoiding the potential drawbacks:
1. Actively think about what it means to you to move in with your partner
Research shows that lots of couples just sort of “slide” into living together without really thinking about it beforehand.8,9 Unfortunately, this is a great way to wind up feeling trapped. So before you move in together, take some time to think about why you're moving in. For example, do you see moving in as a symbol of your commitment to the relationship? Or is it more a convenient way to spend time together or save money?
If you’ve decided that this relationship is the real deal, then that’s awesome. And if your partner agrees, even better. You’ve already sidestepped the biggest risks associated with moving in together, by letting your commitment determine your living arrangement rather than the other way around. However, if one or both of you is not ready to make a long-term commitment yet, then you should probably proceed with the move-in process more cautiously. It’s important that you don’t accidentally lock yourselves into a relationship that you’re not ready to commit to. Which brings me to Step 2.
2. Minimize the barriers to moving back out.
I know it’s not very romantic to think about the possibility of a breakup. But being stuck living with an ex isn’t very romantic, either. Unless you and your partner are engaged, or have otherwise agreed that you’re in it for the long haul (see Step 1), then you should make sure that you’re not getting yourself into something that you can’t reasonably get out of. For example, try to find a month-to-month lease if you can, rather than a year-long contract. Or, try to find a place that one of you can comfortably afford on your own, in case one of you needs to move out. Don't merge your finances, and definitely don’t buy any property together. Think to yourself, “Logistically, once we move in together, would I be able to end this relationship if I wanted to?” if the answer is “no”, or “not without causing a gigantic mess,” then you may want to put off the move until the relationship is more established.
In sum, it’s important to recognize moving in together for the investment that it is. A lot of couples move in together to try to “test drive” their relationship, figuring that if it doesn’t work, they can just move back out. But moving in together isn’t really a test — it’s the real thing, and moving back out may not be as easy as you expect. So if you’re not totally committed to your partner yet, it’s important to realize that and to plan accordingly. That way, if and when you do decide to fully commit to your partner, it’ll because your relationship is fantastic, and not because you have joint custody of some furniture.
1. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Amato, P. R., Markman, H. J., & Johnson, C. A. (2010). The timing of cohabitation and engagement: Impact on first and second marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.
2. Kamp Dush, C. M., 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, 539-549.
3. 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, 496-519.
4. Thompson, E., & Colella, U. (1992). Cohabitation and marital stability: Quality or commitment? Journal of Marriage and the Family, 54, 259-278.
5. 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, 180-192.
6. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55, 499-509.
7. Brown, S. L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58, 668-678.
8. Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2005). Measuring and modeling cohabitation: New perspectives from qualitative data. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 989-1002.
9. Lindsay, J.M. (2000). An ambiguous commitment: Moving into a cohabiting relationship. Journal of Family Studies, 6, 120-134.