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Is Living Together the Kiss of Death to a Relationship?

Is Living Together the Answer or the Kiss of Death to a Relationship? Part II

living together
Source: Stokpic/Pexels

In Part I we looked at the transformed social landscape, a place in which the numbers of folks living together had surpassed those who were married. Then I shared the story of Shelley & Jared, two 30- somethings that had decided to live together. Like other couples, Shelley and Jared thought that living together might be a good way to test drive the relationship and besides it was far more economical. We asked readers to guess how it would turn out.

To help figure this out, let's look at what research on living together might tell us. Well, most studies done from 1995 forward showed that couples that lived together before marriage had higher divorce rates as compared with couples that didn't. Other findings included poorer mental and physical health, including depression, especially for women1.

Other studies like Hewitt et al, Stanley & Markman, Baxter & Gray, and a more recent study by Robyn Parker2 in Australia continue to show advantages for marrieds over cohabitors and again especially for women. One explanation for these findings is that the burden placed on women is not compensated for in a living together environment. Since women are known to do the lion's share of housework, the thinking is that a woman would go from taking care of her own place to having to do the housework and other domestic errands in the two-person apartment or house that she shared with her boyfriend. All this extra work occurs without the benefit of the financial and emotional security that comes with the commitment of marriage.

Most current studies show that if a person (like Shelley) has lived with multiple partners, she/he will likely end up in a break-up or divorce. Other studies of living together show that after about a year and a half, the cohabitors either marry or break up. And the break-up rate is about 50%. So living together for many couples is a coin flip and does not ensure a happy marriage.

But that's not the whole story. As Seligson points out in her lovely book, "A Little Bit Married," there are those who disagree with past findings. She pins her hopes on Manning & Smock's qualitative analysis3 of prior research published in 2005 and concludes that for most folks living together is a viable option that compares favorably with being married. Obviously, one study does not a conclusion make to paraphrase the Bard but nevertheless we'll be keeping our eye on this megatrend.

Well given all this, what do you think happened to Shelley and Jared?
a) Lived together happily ever after
b) Got married and go through a yucky divorce
c) Lived together unhappily ever after
d) Parted ways after about a year and a half

So if you answered d) Parted ways after about a year and a half, you are correct!! They broke up and are still both single although Shelley thinks she may move in with her new guy.

So is there anything to be gained by living together? Here's where some recent research and my own clinical work point. The critical success factor for couples who live together and manage to create a more lasting relationship is their commitment to persevering and staying together. For example, Teachman's study4 based on a broad sample found that when a woman lived with her future husband, that is, where there was a commitment, there was not an elevated risk of divorce.

In my book5, Love in 90 Days, I review the many research studies that have identified commitment as one of the eight habits of lasting love relationships. That same degree of commitment needs to be developed during the living together phase if the couple is to make it. This means they are more willing to work on the inevitable differences, disappointments and setbacks that inevitably occur in that most complicated of arrangements, a love relationship. Without commitment, unmarried couples end up splitting apart as soon as the inevitable problems of everyday life confront them. For younger couples, that commitment often includes engagement and marriage. In Shelley and Jared's case there were no plans to wed. Living together was a convenience and an experiment. We now know how that went.

In part III we will explore what research tells us about how couples over 50 fare living together.

1David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The State of Our Unions: 2006. (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2006.
2See R. Parker, (2006). Researching married and cohabiting couples. Family Matters, 74, pp. 52-55.
3W.D Manning & Pamela J. Smock, (2005). Measuring & Modeling Cohabitation: New Perspectives from Qualitative Data. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 67, pp. 989-1002.
4Jay Teachman, (2003). "Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation, and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Disruption Among Women," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 65, pp.444-455.

5D.A. Kirschner (2010). Love in 90 Days: the Essential guide to Finding Your Own True Love. (New York: Center Street).