Back in the 70’s, couples who lived together before marriage were seen as rebellious–they were the cutting edge of changing relationship norms. Today, however, cohabitation is seen as a normal and important step before marriage, or sometimes even as a financial necessity or convenience having little to do with plans for marriage (or not). A report from Pew Research center displayed increasing normality and acceptance of cohabitation without marriage (Horowitz et al., 2019).
Are couples who live together prior to marriage more likely to get divorced or report lower levels of relationship satisfaction? Or, are they happier and more committed? A wide body of research has been done in an attempt to answer these questions in recent decades, but social scientists have yet to agree.
So, what’s the real answer to the question of whether and when couples should move in together before marriage? It’s complicated. Below we’re going to explore a few different theories, all of which represent an important piece of the puzzle necessary to understand what effect(s) cohabitation may have on relationships and future marriages.
Theory 1: The Research is Outdated
Since the 70s there have been an abundance of studies about cohabitation and its alleged effects on (future) marriages. Much of the older research on this topic was done at a time when cohabitation was an alternative to marriage, rather than a potential precursor, as it is often perceived today. This body of research tends to indicate that couples who live together prior to marriage have a higher likelihood of divorce. However, the couples who used to move in together a few decades ago (when much of this research was done) were not your average run-of-the-mill millennial couple following a prescribed set of social norms and relationship steps (Fox, 2014).
Rather, these were couples who were the rebels of their time. Back in the day, living together before getting married was not conventional, and the couples who chose to do so were in the minority. Because of this, they were likely to possess different personality characteristics than couples who follow a more conventional path (such as those cohabiting before marriage today). Therefore, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from those older studies because unconventional folks cohabiting in the 70’s and 80s may have other characteristics that predisposed them to divorce (Fox, 2014) other than just living together.
The context behind cohabitation is different now, which means that while those older studies may still have insights to offer, they cannot be used to draw conclusions about the present.
Theory #2: It’s the age of serious commitment that really counts
Some research shows that the important factor in determining marital success is not whether or not couples move in together first, but at what age they make a serious commitment (either cohabitation or marriage). Those who moved in together or got married at age 18 later divorced in 60% of cases, whereas only 30% of people who married or moved in together at age 23 ended up divorced. The researchers involved in this study found that the results were the same whether couples married or moved in together at those ages–what mattered was the age at which people chose to make one of those two serious commitments. Making a serious commitment too young was correlated with higher rates of divorce (Fox, 2014).
Theory #3: It’s harder to get out of a relationship after you’re cohabiting
Much of the research does indeed show that couples who cohabit prior to marriage are less likely to have happy marriages. One theory to explain this is that once a couple is living together, they’re more likely to prolong or escalate the relationship past its expiration date. This is because cohabitation makes it harder to find an easy out; indeed, cohabitation was once considered ‘trial marriage’ due to the natural increase in commitment that comes from intertwining one’s life with another person’s. Therefore, couples who cohabit before marriage may be more likely to get married by default. They may also be less likely to report satisfying relationships due to the fact that cohabitation led some of them to a point where staying in the relationship was easier than getting out, even if it wasn’t working well (Fox, 2015).
Theory #4: The Inertia Effect
Some research suggests that moving in together before getting engaged (rather than after engagement or marriage) is correlated with lower marital satisfaction, commitment, and confidence, worse communication, and higher likelihood of divorce. However, the reason behind the trend is deeper than simply ‘early cohabitation leads to worse relationships’ (Rhoades et al., 2009). Enter: The Inertia Effect.
‘Inertia theory’, as it is known among relationship researchers, suggests that many couples slide into cohabitation without pausing to talk about what implications it has for the future of their relationship. They treat it somewhat more casually than couples did in the past, before it was so commonplace. Therefore, inertia theory hypothesizes that couples who move in together without first committing to getting married are at risk of later marital difficulties. The reasoning goes that cohabitation pushes couples closer to marriage. This occurs at least in part because moving in together often comes with other commitments and forces which act upon the relationship–shared financial investments, increased social pressure to stay together, and sometimes even pregnancy. And, some cohabiting couples choose to marry even when they wouldn’t have done so had they never moved in together. This is the inertia effect. It doesn’t suggest that cohabitation weakens relationships, but rather than moving in together leads to some already weak relationships turning into marriages (Rhoades et al., 2009).
Further research has supported inertia theory: in 1996, researchers found that couples who lived together but did not plan on getting married had lower-quality relationships than married people and couples who lived together and planned to get married later. In this light, it seems that it isn’t cohabiting before marriage which may put couples at risk for relationship breakdown down the road, but rather cohabiting before engagement (Rhoades et al., 2009).
Couples today often move in together for reasons that might raise a few eyebrows among relationship psychologists: Around 40% of cohabiters cited finances and convenience as important factors in their decision to move in together. 38% reported that cohabitation made financial sense, and 37% called it ‘convenient’. By contrast, 13% of married adults named finances as a driving force behind their decisions to marry, and only 10% mentioned convenience.
If inertia theory is correct, it has important implications for unmarried couples who are not yet cohabiting. If you’re thinking about moving in together, you might do it less with an eye towards finances or convenience and more with an eye towards long-term commitment. If you’re not ready to get engaged, you still might benefit from honoring cohabitation as the important relationship step that it is. Before moving in together, talk to your partner about what it means. Do you hope to stay together for the long haul? If so, move in together only when you are ready to take this important step as a way of intentionally upping the ante on your commitment and moving your relationship closer to marriage or long-term commitment (Rhoades et al., 2009).
Back to the Present
All of the research presented above forms an important part of the puzzle of understanding cohabitation and its potential effects on marriage, but much of that research also has one major limitation (aforementioned): It’s not that new. That doesn’t mean it’s invalid, but it does mean that in order to gain the most complete understanding possible, we should also explore some more updated research surrounding cohabitation and marriage. So, with the background considerations above in mind, what does the most up-to-date research we could find say about cohabitation and marriage? Let’s have a look at some key interesting findings:
-Married people are more trusting of their partners and report higher levels of relationship satisfaction than unmarried cohabiting couples. 58% of married couples surveyed reported that things were going ‘very well’ in their relationships whereas only 41% of cohabiters said the same (Horowitz et al., 2019).
-Whether married or cohabiting, the majority of couples in the study expressed ‘a fair amount’ of trust that their partners would be faithful to them, tell them the truth, act in their best interest, and be financially responsible (Horowitz et al., 2019). However, married couples expressed more trust in all of these areas (Horowitz et al., 2019).
-Married people were more likely than unmarried cohabiting couples to be satisfied with the management and division of household chores, with their partners’ abilities to balance work and personal life, with their communication, and with one another’s approaches to parenting (Horowitz et al., 2019).
-Married adults were more likely to report that they feel closer to their partner than to any other adult; 78% of married adults said this, whereas 55% of cohabiters felt the same (Horowitz et al., 2019).
Of course, none of the research presented in this article is conclusive. However, it all provides important context that can help us to make informed decisions for our own relationships.
After cohabitation: Another important step
Clearly, cohabitation, when treated with intention, can be an important step on the ladder leading to marriage. Each rung on this ladder brings higher and higher levels of commitment and teamwork. After engagement and cohabitation, there’s another important rung before marriage that shouldn’t be skipped: The prenup.
The reason drafting a prenuptial agreement is an important step in the process leading to marriage is because major commitments comes with major responsibilities. Commitment doesn’t just mean saying “let’s get married” and calling it a day, it means talking about what that means on every level, including on a financial level.
It means discussing your financial roles and expectations in marriage.
It means discussing what assets will remain separate and which will be shared marital property.
It means full financial disclosure.
It means protecting yourselves from each other’s debt or maybe agreeing to help out with it and tackle it together.
It even means talking about how your finances would be divided if you were to eventually decide to divorce and go your separate ways.
Discussing and deciding on all of these things is an excellent way to develop your teamwork skills as well as an essential part of deepening your commitment in preparation for marriage. Don’t skip it!
Interested in learning more about prenuptial agreements? Check out what you can and can’t include in your prenup, or head over to our blog for more prenup knowledge. If you think you’d like to write a prenup but suspect your partner isn’t on board yet, here’s how to bring up a prenup without upsetting your partner. It might seem like a tricky conversation, but we promise you won’t regret making your prenup an essential part of your progression towards marriage.
Fox, L. 2014. The Science of Cohabitation: A Step Toward Marriage, Not a Rebellion. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/the-science-of-cohabitation-a-step-toward-marriage-not-a-rebellion/284512/:
Horowitz, J., Graf, N., & Livingston, G. 2019. Views on Marriage and Cohabitation in the US. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/
Rhoades, G., Stanley, S., & Markman, H. 2009. The Pre-engagement Cohabitation Effect: A Replication and Extension of Previous Findings. Journal of Family Psychology 23(1) 107-111.
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