Live-In And Learn

Living together works--if you improve communication skills.

By Carin Gorrell, published November 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Living with your partner before tying the knot may help you pay the rent, but it could cost you the relationship, new research suggests. About half of American couples today live together before marrying, often to "practice" for marriage. But according to a study presented at the International Conference on Personal Relationships in Brisbane, Australia, those couples tend to have poorer communication skills once married, which may in turn increase their likelihood of divorce. The study, conducted by Catherine Cohan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, involved 87 recently married couples, 37 of which lived together before tying the knot. Participants were each given a list of personal and marital problems and asked to identify one that they considered important in their union. Prepared by Cohan, the list included common sources of marital discord, such as sexual difficulties, money, career decisions, religion and family planning. Once couples had chosen a relevant problem, they were asked to discuss and attempt to solve it while being videotaped.

Upon examining the videotapes, Cohan discovered that the cohabiting couples displayed more negative and fewer positive problem-solving and support behaviors than couples who had not cohabited prior to marriage. In particular, when discussing a topic the husband had identified as a problem, partners who had cohabited tended to express more negative behaviors such as coerciveness and attempts to control. And in general, wives who had lived with their partners prior to marriage were generally more verbally aggressive than those in couples with no premarital cohabitation.

While living together before marriage doesn't necessarily doom a relationship, research has shown that couples who do have higher rates of marital separation and divorce. Cohan believes there are at least two possible explanations for this phenomenon. First, certain characteristics may distinguish cohabitors from noncohabitors. "People who choose to cohabit may have poorer communication skills upon entering a cohabiting relationship compared to people who do not cohabit," she suggests. If true, a couple's poor communication skills could be attributed not to the actual experience of living together, but instead to the types of people who choose to do so.

Alternatively, Cohan continues, it may be that couples who decide to move in together tend to be somewhat uncertain about the long-term viability of their romantic relationships. In this instance, the experience of cohabitation itself might help form communication barriers. "That uncertainty may diminish their commitment to the relationship, which in turn may diminish the effort they put into developing their communication skills," Cohan said.

So should unmarried couples avoid living under the same roof? "Until we know whether the results are related to selection factors or to the experience of cohabitation itself, I cannot say that couples should not live together," Cohan said. "However, I can say there is no scientific evidence that living together before marriage benefits couples." Cohan plans to further test her hypotheses, but in the meantime, she says, "I would recommend communication-skills training for ail couples--regardless of cohabitation experience--before serious problems arise."