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  • Cohabitation before clarity about commitment may produce something more akin to “maybe I do” than a fully volitional “I do.” Tweet This
  • The contrast between sliding and deciding highlights the chasm between ambiguous relationship transitions and commitments founded in volition and intention. Tweet This
  • Marriage and engagement are non-ambiguous signals about the commitment between two partners.  Tweet This
Category: Cohabitation

We recently reported on ways in which patterns of premarital cohabitation are associated with marital dissolution, in a report called What's the Plan? Cohabitation, Engagement, and Divorce. The report is based on U.S. data on premarital cohabitation in first marriages in the years 2010 to 2019. We found that those who cohabited before being engaged were substantially more likely to have their marriages end than those who either did not cohabit before marriage or only did so after being engaged.1

We have predicted this pattern based on the fact that cohabitation has greater inertia than dating. Specifically, moving in together leads to a marked increase in constraints favoring remaining together, but it does not, on average, lead to further growth in dedication to a future together.2 Inertia implies that some who cohabit before marriage might have broken up if they hadn’t lived together, and/or may enter marriage with an attenuated sense of internal volition because of constraints.3 For some, living together is a manifestation of what Norval Glenn called premature entanglement.4 Those who have already strongly clarified their marital intentions before moving in together, by marriage or engagement, will be less likely to have these risks. 

Clarity and volition are foundational to the formation of commitment. Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices.5 It involves making a decision. The literature on cognitive consistency and dissonance highlights how decisions and prior acts can provide strong anchors for follow-through, especially when these elements are explicit and perceived to be volitional.6

In contrast, for some people, cohabitation before clarity about commitment may produce something more akin to “maybe I do” than a fully volitional “I do” at the foundation of their marriage.7

Sliding vs. Deciding

These thoughts about commitment highlight the importance of how, when, and why couples start living together. Several qualitative studies have looked at the process of moving in together.8 Is the transition explicit and clear? Is there typically a decision reflecting anything to do with commitment? Is the transition experienced as volitional? The existing studies suggest that the answers to these questions are most often “No.”

A qualitative study by Wendy Manning and Pamela Smock in 2005 focused on how the measurement of union formation needed to adjust to differences between cohabitation and marriage. In examining how couples make decisions about living together, they found that there was typically no decision or discussion about the nature of the relationship. They wrote, “Their decision may be better characterized as a slide into cohabitation,” with “no conscious decision-making process.”  

Although this phenomenon had been observed before (as they note), Manning and Smock found that just over half of the cohabiting couples they interviewed had slid or drifted into living together without making any clear decision about it. They concluded that the transition into cohabitation is not like marriage and should be treated differently by researchers. 

In 1972, Eleanor Macklin studied the relationships of undergraduate women at Cornell. She observed that moving in together was “seldom the result of a considered decision.” The process was gradual and better described as something people “drifted” into. In a 1983 paper, Patrick Jackson noted that “cohabitation can be understood as a gradual movement characterized by drift in a situation of opportunity isolated from immediate social controls.” All of these researchers caught the drift, but Manning and Smock’s sample better represents what cohabitation often looks like today. 

This pattern of sliding into cohabitation had become so recognized in the culture by the mid-1990s that the sitcom "Spin City" captured the dynamic beautifully in its first episode in 1996. The context is an upper middle-class couple, but the dynamic is the same as described by couples at various levels of resources. 

It’s evening and Mike (played by Michael J. Fox) learns his colleagues are coming over, and likely will stay late working. Mike recommends that Ashley, his girlfriend (played by Carla Gugino), head back to her place so she can sleep. Ashely says she can’t, because she no longer has a place; the lease ran out a few weeks before. Choking up with anxiety, Mike says, “So, we live together? . . . I feel I should have been told.” Ashley points out all the evidence that they had gradually come to be living together.9

That’s a transition without a decision. 

Ambiguity vs. Commitment

In a paper published in 2000, Jo Lindsay reported on interviews with cohabiting Australians. As with the studies mentioned above, she noted the ubiquity of gradual transitions, with many respondents reporting some form of “it just happened.” Lindsay concluded: “Most cohabiters did not see moving in as a significant transition, emphasizing continuity rather than change.” 

Lindsay further stressed a lack of ownership of any decision or clear intention, noting that “The cohabiters minimized their agency when they discussed their decision to move in.” They didn’t choose it; it happened to them. In fact, only one of her 30 respondents described feeling the need to discuss the nature of the relationship and make a clear decision about the transition. Lindsay wrote, “If the nature of the relationship is undefined, levels of commitment are also kept undefined.” 

Moving in together leads to a marked increase in constraints favoring remaining together, but it does not, on average, lead to further growth in dedication to a future together.

Manning and Smock reported that most of their respondents did not discuss—and made no decision about—marriage versus cohabitation. Lindsay noticed that her respondents gave quick and nervous “No” answers when asked if they had talked about marriage at the time of moving in together. In her words, they “dodged” the topic. She noted that the transition was often deliberately kept ambiguous to allow the exit door to be left open. This is the essence of motivated ambiguity,10 and it is consistent with the way cohabitation has, for many, become something more akin to dating than marriage. 

In 1995, Steven Nock described cohabitation as an incomplete institution, as it lacks consensual norms, laws, and definition. It is no wonder people have trouble describing the process of entering into it. Although cohabitation is an alternative to marriage for some committed couples, it is generally a relationship form where the ambiguity (and lower average levels of commitment) is widely seen as a feature, not a bug. The absence of a formal decision or commitment between two partners is part of the appeal. Options remain open, but in a context where inertia—or life constraints like having a baby—is growing and foreclosing those options. 

Cohabitation and transitions into it are generally ambiguous unless further defined by signals about commitment. Susan Brown and Alan Booth have shown that cohabiters who report marriage plans are more like marrieds than cohabiters who do not report such plans. This aligns with our focus on the timing of commitment to marriage relative to moving in together, but we emphasize additional reasons why that timing matters. Just as inertia implies, the risks are loaded up for those who start living together before nailing down commitment in, or to, marriage. That’s the group cohabiting in the most ambiguous context. Marriage and engagement are non-ambiguous signals about the commitment between two partners. 

For whom is ambiguity a risk? There is a growing divergence in marital and family destinies based on race/ethnicity, education, and resources.11 Those with more disadvantages have become much less likely to marry and more likely to cohabit, with a deepening divide in family stability. We believe that, regardless of a person’s options or pathways in life, the risks of ambiguity grow as relationships become more serious and constraints increase. 

In 2006, we published a paper in which we wove all the themes above into a theory of why cohabitation before marriage is associated with higher average risks for difficulties in marriage, net of selection, and we extended that reasoning to other important relationship transitions. 

The Process Matters

Sliding versus deciding has many applications. The contrast captures the way most couples move in together, which, as Manning and Smock put it, is typically a slide. At the root, sliding reflects a process devoid of discussion or decision. The phrasing is also great short-hand for times in life, big or small, when a moment to make a decision is lost. For example, couples often slide into nasty arguments when one or both partners could have decided to take things in a different direction. 

Put into the context of the formation of commitment, the contrast between sliding and deciding highlights the chasm between ambiguous relationship transitions and commitments founded in volition and intention. Further, given our focus on the risks of ambiguity and inertia, we believe the word Manning and Smock chose, “slide,” is superior to the word “drift,” which has often been used by scholars to describe various relationship transitions. Drifting is always passive. Sliding can be passive or active, and when active, it’s often in the service of avoiding clarity. That matters because sliding can lead to increased constraints that were not explicitly chosen—and sticking feels different than stuck

The widely noted decline in scripts for romantic relationship development makes it hard for two people to clarify what is happening. As a result, it takes more skill than it used to require to navigate relationships. Some people have these skills, but most do not. Unfortunately, “It happened to me” cannot possibly be as strong a foundation for commitment as an unalloyed “I chose this.” 

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). Galena Rhoades is a research associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver.

1. This pattern is durable over several decades: 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 marriagesJournal of Marriage and Family, 72, 906-918.; Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., & Allen, E. S. (2015). Can marriage education mitigate the risks associated with premarital cohabitation? Journal of Family Psychology, 29(3), 500-506. 

2. Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2012). The impact of the transition to cohabitation on relationship functioning: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findingsJournal of Family Psychology, 26(3), 348 - 358.; The contrast between dedication and constraint (or like terms) is foundational in theories of commitment (e.g., Michael Johnson, George Levinger, Caryl Rusbult, and Scott Stanley). On average, dedication does increase ahead of moving in together but then it levels off, and not at a particularly high level. Such findings are important because it is generally desirable for dedication to mature at a high level before constraints grow too large. 

3.  Kline (Rhoades), G. H., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Olmos-Gallo, P. A., St. Peters, M., Whitton, S. W., & Prado, L. (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomesJournal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.; Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus Deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effectFamily Relations, 55(4), 499-509.

4. Glenn, N. D. (2002). A plea for greater concern about the quality of marital matching. In A. J. Hawkins, L. D. Wardle, and D. O. Coolidge (Eds.), Revitalizing the institution of marriage for the twenty-first century: An agenda for strengthening marriage (pp. 45-58). Westport, CT: Praeger.

5. This point first appears in this book, which contains a blend of insights from theology, research, and psychology on commitment in marriage: Stanley, S. (1998). The heart of commitment. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.  

6. Kiesler, C. (1971). The psychology of commitment. New-York: Academic Press.; Brehm, J. W., & Cohen, A. R. (1962). Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: John Wiley & Sons.  

7. This specific observation was based on data from that time showing that men in marriages of couples who had lived together prior to marriage were substantially less committed to their mates than men in the marriages of those who had not, despite the fact that all had become married: Stanley, S. M. (2002, July).  What is it with Men and Commitment, Anyway? Keynote address to the 6th Annual Smart Marriages Conference, Washington D. C.; Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., & Markman, H. J. (2004). Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitationJournal of Family Issues, 25, 496-519.

8. Note that these studies examine relationships regardless of a future in marriage whereas analyses such as those we presented in the new report are from a sample where everyone married. 

9. They are living together in a way consistent with our preferred definition based on inertia: two people sharing a single address without either having their own, separate place. 

10. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Understanding romantic relationships among emerging adults: The significant roles of cohabitation and ambiguity. In F. D. Fincham & M. Cui (Eds.), Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood (pp. 234-251). New York: Cambridge University Press.

11. Lamidi, E. O., Manning, W. D., & Brown, S. L. (2019). Change in the stability of first premarital cohabitation among women in the United States, 1983–2013. Demography, 56, 427-450.; Sassler, S., & Miller, A. (2017). Cohabitation nation: Gender, class, and the remaking of relationships. Oakland: University of California Press.; Smock, P. J., & Schwartz, C. R. (2020). The demography of families: A review of patterns and changeJournal of Marriage and Family, 82(1), 9-34.