I’m a chatty sort, always have been. There are few topics I won’t touch. Sex, religion, rock ‘n roll, politics—bring them on! Cohabitation, on the other hand, tends to render me mute. It’s not that I don’t know anything about it. As a researcher of family formation for 30 years, I know quite a bit. What stifles me is my respect for those whose opinions differ from mine. No matter the stance one takes, or if one teeters in the middle, cohabitation can be a touchy subject, particularly with family members.
Once rare, cohabitation is now the norm. It requires no definition and causes hardly a furrowed brow. Two-thirds of Americans approve of it; cohabitation precedes roughly 70% of first marriages for women; and overall, approximately 18 million American adults live together outside of marriage. Cohabitation is more likely the “first union” for women, yet marriage remains the desired outcome for many.
But is marriage a sure-thing following cohabitation when cohabitation is, by nature, deemed more stressful than marriage? Furthermore, ample research indicates living together before marriage actually decreases the odds of marital success, and may, in fact, make it riskier the longer a couple cohabits. These proclamations, however, dissuade few; after all, cohabitation appears to be so darn logical: it seems like common sense that living with someone first—seeing that person on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis—would improve the odds of marital bliss?
I’m not one to advise for or against cohabitation, even to those I love the most. However, I do advise couples to make the decision thoughtfully and to consider all the implications. Take the time to understand facts and myths associated with cohabitation. Reading even a sampling of the research will introduce a hefty matrix of factors (moral and religious aspects aside) that one should consider when weighing the pros and cons of living together, especially if marriage is the desired outcome.
Not all cohabitation arrangements are equal, of course. Some cohabitating couples never intend to marry; fewer than half of cohabiting unions involve couples committed to marry or who are engaged. Keep in mind that cohabitations tend to fare best for couples already publically committed to each other or who are formally engaged to be married.
Therefore, for the couples that do hope to marry one day, it’s worth considering the full spectrum of possibilities that influence the likelihood of a future together. Here are some questions that I would advise couples who are thinking about moving in together to consider:
1. Why live together rather than continue dating or get married? Although some couples want to live together for convenience or to save rent, 84% say “testing compatibility” is their top motivator. Personally, I wouldn’t want anyone to marry me for money, just as I wouldn’t anyone to live with me to save it. I also wouldn’t relish having to prove myself, knowing my every movement could be scrutinized for compatibility.
2. What is your desired outcome—does it align with your partner’s expectations? In other words: if you want to eventually be married to this person, make sure that is what your partner wants, too. This seems a fair question. Couples in what Professor Scott Stanley terms “asymmetrically committed relationships” (ACR) are generally not good candidates for cohabitation. So, if you think, “He/she’s not as into me as I am into him/her,” I advise not moving in together. Couples that live together when one or the other lags in enthusiasm usually don’t find success.
3. What do you expect to learn from cohabiting? More specifically, do some of your partner’s habits and behaviors prompt a closer look before you feel secure making a marriage decision? Stanley and Galena Rhoades explain, “Most couples that desire to live together to ‘test’ a relationship, on some level already know what they’ll find—‘how the test will pan out’—yet they are hoping for an answer that looks better over time.” In essence, if an issue is an issue prior to cohabitation, it will likely be an issue later and into marriage as well.
4. How will you divide housework and property, or decide who pays the bills? While it might not seem romantic to consider legal or financial aspects regarding cohabitation, it’s just practical.
5. What about children? One can’t ignore the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy when three out of five children born to unmarried women today are born inside cohabiting unions. It’s also important to note that cohabitating parenthood varies greatly from married parenthood when it comes to building the most stable family life for kids.
6. What core values do you share about raising children, family, religion, finances, work ethic, and general life philosophies? In short, cohabitation demands a thorough understanding of each other's values, including what cohabitation means to you and to your partner.
7. The bottom line: Do you really want to live with this person? Living together should be a well thought out choice, not just the next step in dating, or what Stanley and Rhoades have described as “sliding versus deciding.” Signing a lease, possibly having a baby, and comingling assets of any kind as a cohabiting couple make breaking up that much harder to do if things don’t work out.
Marriage requires hard work, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. It is a unique partnership with inherent privileges, responsibilities, meaning, and purpose.
I’ll admit, I didn’t live with my husband prior to marriage. We dated for two years, and following a conflict-free courtship, made a “pact” that we would someday be married. So, while I don’t know cohabitation firsthand, I do know marriage. I’ve lived it and breathed it. In fact, I write this on my 31st wedding anniversary.
I can tell you about the excitement we felt as we planned our life together, and as we moved gifts and belongings into our shared household after the wedding, and as we made discoveries about each other each day as husband and wife, and the untold joy we realized as our union of two became a family of three, then four. It took time and energy for us, as individuals, to coalesce into the marriage partners we are today. Marriage requires hard work, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. It is a unique partnership with inherent privileges, responsibilities, meaning, and purpose.
I can tell you—most emphatically—that there hasn’t been one day that I haven’t loved my husband (while there were some days, however, that I loved him less than others!). I can also tell you that once I said, “I do,” I never once thought, “I don’t,” even though there were days that the love I felt for my spouse was less than the commitment needed as a husband or wife. That’s marriage.
We learned that marriage requires hard work, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. It is indeed a unique partnership with inherent privileges, responsibilities, meaning, and purpose.
Would we have found this if we had cohabited prior to marriage? Of that, I’m unsure. We chose marriage first, a love-choice built on faith in each other and a mutual commitment—an “all-in,” “I’ve got your back” mentality that has shaped our life outcomes and our children’s. And 31 years later and counting, I’m still glad we did!
Rhonda Kruse Nordin researches and writes on family issues and is a senior fellow with the Center of the American Experiment.
Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.