During our entire 22-month courtship and engagement, my husband and I lived five hundred miles apart and only saw each other on weekends and holidays. While we logged thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling back and forth between states, we rarely spent more than three days in the same city at a time. Most of our relationship took place over the phone and email.
Then, just like that, we were married—and not only seeing each other every day but also sharing a bed (and everything else). Because neither one of us had ever lived with a significant other, moving in together was a major adjustment, to say the least. Looking back, it seems a bit risky to go from a long-distance relationship straight into marriage without at least living in the same city, or maybe even cohabiting, first. Many of our friends and family are in cohabiting relationships—and recent surveys show that more than half of first marriages today begin with cohabitation.
But for me, living together before marriage just wasn’t an option. If I was going to leave my job, friends, and a city I loved to move in with Brian, I needed a ring on my finger and his public vow of forever. But, because I know this is a topic of much debate amongst my peers, I reached out to researchers who study cohabiting relationships to see what the latest social science says.
As it turns out, by not cohabiting before marriage, my husband and I avoided what many experts consider a relationship “pitfall” for most marriage-minded couples. “If you want to marry, be careful about cohabitation,” advises Scott Stanley, Ph.D., a research professor and social scientist who studies cohabiting relationships with his colleagues at the University of Denver.
When I asked Dr. Stanley about his research, he said the “ambiguous” nature of cohabiting makes it easy to misunderstand the commitment level of your partner—a risk he says is greater for women than men. Additionally, he told me cohabiting before marriage (or at least engagement) is linked to lower levels of commitment, as well as poorer marriage quality and a higher divorce risk for many couples.
Empowering for Women—or Men?
While many women view cohabitation as liberating, according to Dr. Stanley, “there is nothing pro-woman about cohabitation.” In fact, women have more to lose in a cohabiting relationship if the relationship goes wrong. Dr. Stanley argues that the uncertainty of cohabitation leads to more unequal relationships in which women are more committed than their male partners. “Men have always been more willing to have casual, uncommitted sex than women,” he says, “and cohabitation allows for lower commitment to go undetected.”
A major reason cohabiting women are vulnerable comes down to basic biology: We can get pregnant, and unplanned pregnancies are more common among cohabiting women than married women. For example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that 69 percent of pregnancies to cohabiting women are unplanned, versus 26 percent of pregnancies to married women.
Dr. Stanley explains that cohabiting couples tend to have more sex and use birth control more casually (or not at all), “so babies happen.” The problem is that cohabiting couples with children are more likely to split up than married parents, and this puts women at risk for single motherhood and poverty.
Easy In, Easy Out
My opinion of cohabitation was partially shaped by my faith, which teaches that sex—a seemingly natural component of cohabitation—belongs in marriage. But what had the biggest impact on me is watching my single mom’s heart get battered in too many fleeting relationships, including by a live-in boyfriend.
When I was in high school, my mom’s boyfriend of only a few months moved in with us. He was a soft-spoken man, who treated us with respect, fixed things around the house, and mentored my fatherless little brother, who adored him. Then, one morning, about a year later—while my mom was in the bathtub and my brother was playing outside—he packed his bags, left a note on the kitchen table, and drove away in a cab. We never saw him again. With nothing binding him to my mom or her kids, he left our family as easily as he came into it.
Dr. Stanley cautions that cohabitation, despite its popularity, still entails far less commitment than marriage. In research he and his colleagues conducted, cohabiting couples reported lower levels of commitment, higher levels of disagreement, and lower levels of happiness than married couples. “For most of society, cohabitation does not mean higher levels of commitment,” he says. “Engagement and especially marriage mean higher commitment. But cohabitation for many has really become cohabit-dating.”
While a recent Pew survey found that nearly two-thirds of cohabiting adults view living together as a “step toward marriage,” most cohabiting couples don’t make it down the aisle. For example, a 2014 Bowling Green University study found that all types of cohabiting couples, including engaged couples, are significantly more likely to break up than get married, compared to cohabiting couples twenty years ago. Dr. Stanley says that the crux of the study's findings is "that over the past twenty years, cohabiting relationships have become increasingly less likely to go to marriage and more likely to break up beforehand." Dr. Stanley explains that cohabitation today "is really much more a part of dating than settling down for good."
Some Risk for Your Future Marriage, But No Benefits
Of course, some cohabiting couples do get married, and many people see living together as a helpful, or even necessary, step to marriage. Dr. Stanley calls this “one of the most widely believed myths [about cohabitation] that actually has much evidence to the contrary.”
He points out that “virtually no research shows a benefit to living together before marriage.” Instead, most widely accepted research has linked cohabitation with poorer relationship quality and a higher divorce risk. Granted, recent studies have found no added divorce risk from cohabitation, but Dr. Stanley notes that this is only true for a select group of couples: those who cohabit after age 23, who get engaged before cohabiting, and who cohabit only with the person they marry.
For most couples, the research shows that, on average: Cohabiting with more than one person before marriage is linked to a substantially higher divorce risk, and moving in together without being engaged first or without clear intentions to get married is associated with poorer quality marriages.
Questions to Ask Before Moving In
In light of the risks, Dr. Stanley encourages women and men who are thinking about moving in with a romantic partner to consider these questions:
01. What do you think would happen if you told your partner that you won’t live with them until you are married or at least engaged? “If you are afraid of the answer,” he says, “then you are fooling yourselves about what’s happening.”
02. Have you talked about what living together means—do you both see this as a step toward marriage? “When people live together before knowing they want a future together,” he explains, “they start to make having a future together more likely before really deciding that is the right path.” For more on this, see this short video Dr. Stanley’s team put together.
03. Are you moving in together to test your relationship? “Testing is the worst answer someone can give,” Dr. Stanley warns. “Usually, you already know the answer and are hoping it’s going to improve somehow. It’s likely not going to change anything, except make it harder to break up.”
“You get good at things you get experience doing,” Dr. Stanley adds, including cohabiting and breaking up. Ultimately, he says singles and dating couples need to remember that what happens in our romantic relationships before we get married will impact our future marriages—for better or worse.
The Best Choice for Us
The decision to avoid cohabitation may not be what everyone wants, but it was the right choice for my marriage. On our wedding day, Brian and I stood before our friends, family, and minister and pledged to build a forever family together. We made that commitment inside of marriage because we both grew up in homes where marriage was missing. If we were going to commit ourselves to one another, pool our finances, and hopefully make babies, we wanted to do that inside the publicly recognized union that provides the best protection for men, women, and children.
Although cohabitation may be less risky today for certain couples, it will never be the equivalent of marriage, and for us, anything less was not worth the gamble.
Photo Credit: Nima Salimi