Today, most couples live together before marriage—more than 75 percent. Many people will live with different partners during their twenties and thirties, too. While it’s common, it doesn’t mean the trend is good. In fact, those who live together before they have decided and planned on marriage report less happy marriages later on and are more likely to divorce. It’s true that there may be some benefits of living together. You may discover some of the faults your partner has or learn ways that you are incompatible. But the risk for many is that you may stay with this person due to inertia even if he or she doesn’t ultimately pass your test. My colleagues at the University of Denver and I call this phenomenon “sliding versus deciding.”
Here are four reasons why living together may make it harder to know if you’ve found “the one,” plus some tips on ways to decide for yourself rather than sliding into something that’s not right for you in the long-run.
01. Living together makes it harder to break up.
This fact sounds obvious, but we don’t think about it when we sign a new lease together. I’ve been studying relationships, particularly cohabitation, for the past eighteen years. My research with more than 1,200 people in their twenties and thirties shows that moving in together increases your chances of staying together, but it doesn’t increase how committed or interested you feel. It increases the number of constraints in a relationship—things that may make you stuck or make it hard to disentangle—like pooling finances, adopting a pet, co-mingling kitchenware, or buying furniture together. But there isn’t a corresponding increase in how much you want to marry your partner.
If you or your partner aren’t sure that you want to commit to this relationship, don’t take on constraints that make a break up harder (and therefore less likely) and messier. It will be hard to know if he or she is the one in the context of all of these constraints. You don’t want your decision to be based on whether breaking up is just too much work.
02. For most couples, living together increases discord.
Research shows that living together is associated with more conflict than either dating or being married. The reason for this is that while living together, couples deal with the same issues dating couples commonly face (time spent together, friends, jealousy, commitment) as well as issues common to married couples (household contributions, money, in-laws, raising children). These married-couple issues are easier to deal with when there is already a long-term commitment to the future—like there is in marriage. Living together defies the typical evolution of couple issues and may make it seem like there is more conflict in a relationship than there would be otherwise.
Living together might also make a couple conflict averse to the larger issues that matter for marriage, which can lead to greater conflict down the road. As one woman shared at Verily in the past about her cohabiting relationship:
"One evening, for example, it became apparent that he and I did not share the same values regarding working motherhood. I was completely aghast at the things he said to me that night; I felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. Who was this man that I was living with and how could this be his expectations for our—my—future? But I didn’t say anything. I had class the next day, dinner to clean up, homework to do, and I just could not face such a serious conversation with no place to retreat to in case it went poorly. In a non-cohabitating situation, I probably would have broken up with him right then—it was that bad—or at least taken time to seriously reevaluate our relationship. But I did neither of those things. I told myself that I could maybe change his mind sometime in the future and left it there. We went to sleep that night as usual. This situation played itself out over and over again. These silences grew into unacknowledged mutual grudges that lived ominously under the surface until a disruption in our lives brought them to the surface."
This woman’s experience demonstrates how living with a romantic partner can affect your ability to respond to large relationship issues the way you would if you were discerning the relationship from different living quarters.
03. Living together may instill a break-up mentality that can hurt later marriage.
Oftentimes, partners move in together with ideas about how they will split up furniture, books, finances, and pets in the event of a breakup. This mentality can make it harder to fully commit later on because it becomes habit to think about what the end of the relationship will be like. Early research in this field has shown that living together made marriage seems less attractive. Making a decision to marry and spend a lifetime with someone means giving up these plans for “what if.”
If “what if” is engrained from the beginning of living together, it may be more difficult to change that thinking, even after marrying. Surviving the inevitable stress in marriage takes both partners being firmly committed to making it work. Thriving in those times takes a commitment to learning from experiences together. But by living together already, both parties have likely developed a thought pattern of "what if this doesn't work out," thinking you could just move out and move on, which can undermine that sense of commitment that is essential to a thriving marriage, and that most women seeking marriage want.
04. Living together can hurt your chance of determining if you’re truly compatible.
Living together isn’t a very proactive approach to testing out your compatibility. More telling would be to plan activities with your partner in different settings and with different people. What is your partner like with his or her family? With your friends vs. his/her friends? How does he/she act at work?
Consider planning low-cost, low-commitment projects together. If you’re considering marrying a person, you’d be wise to learn what it will be like to work together. You’ll essentially be running a small corporation together when you’re married. You’ll manage your income together, run a household, do renovations, call plumbers, garden, have babies, raise children, support one another through health problems—many, many tasks. Before you take on these job responsibilities together, it’s wise to get a window on what it will be like to face challenges together.
Some small projects you could consider are:
- Plan and take a short day trip. Doing so involves several of these areas but doesn’t have to mean a long-term commitment.
- Learn about relationships together. Read a book, take a class, attend a retreat. Put effort into your relationship to see how you both react.
- Try a new sport or hobby together. Do you have similar interests? How do you do together under the stress doing something new?
- Babysittogether. What is it like to parent together? What topics come up for discussion when you spend time with children?
- Ask for feedback from friends or family you trust. What do others who know you well see? Ask them to ask you the hard questions—and be open to their feedback.
If your goal is to decide if you’ve found “the one,” and not to slide into a long-term, ill-fitted relationship, try these tips. It might not be as common as cohabiting, But research shows that consciously deciding—rather than sliding—is more likely to lead to happier ever afters.