Cohabitation, or an unwed couple living together, is the norm in society today. In fact, cohabitation has increased by almost 900% in the last 50 years. Some see it as an alternative to marriage; many consider it to be the natural precursor to marriage, like test driving a car before buying it.
But just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s the best decision for you personally. If you’re in a relationship and you’re thinking of moving in together, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself and each other first:
If you’re thinking about taking this step, you should talk with each other about why you want to live together and what it will mean for you as individuals and as a couple. Are you doing it for financial reasons, because paying one rent check is cheaper than paying two? Is it a step toward marriage? A test to see if you’d be suited for marriage? A way to avoid marriage?
Having a conversation about the reasons you want to live together could help you see if you are equally committed to the relationship. According to Meg Jay, clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, “Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.”
On the other hand, couples who wait to live together until marriage or until they have clear, mutual plans to marry have been found, on average, to experience more marital happiness and less conflict than those who live together prior to that.
Combining so many of the details of your lives – signing a lease together, buying furniture together, adopting a pet together – these are all things that make it difficult to break up. You may end up staying with that person for convenience sake even if you realize that your relationship has serious weaknesses and just isn’t working.
This is what researchers refer to as inertia, the pressure from these factors that cause cohabiting couples to stay with someone they may never have stayed with had they not been living together. In some cases, these couples may even end up marrying, leading to lower marital satisfaction and higher divorce rates.
A study by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project found that living with someone other than a future spouse was a premarital risk factor for low marital quality. So although you may not be thinking of marrying your significant other at this point, consider that each time you live with a romantic partner, it could have an impact on your future marriage.
Often, moving in together is not a decision that couples actively make; rather they report that it “just happened.” Researchers refer to this lack of deciding as “sliding.” Couples that slide into living together report lower marital quality later on than those who made a deliberate decision about it. Why? Some suggest that this is because “making decisions consciously is related to a stronger commitment to follow through on those choices.”
So it’s important that you and your significant other discuss and make decisions about major relationship milestones, such as living together.
Many young adults, particularly children of divorced parents, understandably fear divorce and assume that living together will help them determine whether they are a good fit for marriage. In fact, according to a nationwide survey conducted by UVA’s National Marriage Project, two-thirds of 20-somethings said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.
However, research does not show that cohabiting reduces the risk of divorce; in fact, countless research conducted between the 1970s and the mid 2000s shows just the opposite – couples who lived together before marriage actually saw a 33% higher divorce rate than those who waited until they were married to live together.
While the association between cohabitation and divorce rates may be receding in the past couple of years according to some research by Kuperberg, who suggests that age may be more of a factor for divorce than cohabitation alone, researchers have never found widespread evidence showing that cohabitating decreases divorce rates.
Although the idea of pregnancy and children may be far from the minds of you and your significant other at this point, a 2013 report by the CDC found that cohabiting women had an increased probability for pregnancy. Within one year of a woman’s first premarital cohabitation, 20% become pregnant and that number rises to 31% after two years. Further, these numbers include only pregnancies that are carried full term. That percentage would presumably be higher if it also included pregnancies ended by miscarriage or abortion. In fact, a study by The National Campaign found that 56% of cohabiting women ages 18-29 reported experiencing an unplanned pregnancy.
Why the increased risk for pregnancy in a cohabiting relationship? It may be because living together creates just enough of a sense of commitment and comfort, causing people to be less careful with contraceptive methods. The National Campaign study found that 82% of cohabiting men and 74% of cohabiting women responded that it was very or somewhat important to them to avoid pregnancy; however, 52% of cohabiting couples reported inconsistent use, non-use, or were unsure of their consistency or use of contraception.
Bradford Wilcox, head of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia explains, “Cohabitation fosters enough intimacy to facilitate childbearing but not enough commitment to make people deliberate about their choices to become parents,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic. “The result, an unplanned birth, can pose real problems to their relationship and to their future odds of successfully marrying.”
Additionally, research shows that children born outside of marriage, including to cohabiting couples, are “much more likely to experience family instability, school failure, and emotional problems. In fact, children born to cohabiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents.”
Due to some of these issues related to cohabitation, living together may not be the best way to test your relationship to determine if you’re compatible for marriage. The constraints that it creates make it much more difficult to break up. The UVA National Marriage Project suggests other ways to test the relationship that wouldn’t increase constraints:
We at Valley Women’s Clinic want you to make the best choices for your relationship and your future. Hopefully asking these questions and discussing these things with your significant other will help you evaluate whether or not moving in together is a step you want to take.