Does living together before marriage help or hurt a relationship?
Although many people believe living together before deciding to get married is a good “trial run” before making a commitment, the research disagrees. But the issue isn’t as cut-and-dried as you might think.
It appears there’s a big difference between making the decision to live together when there are still doubts about the long-term nature of your relationship and making that decision after you have already decided to get married. Researchers call this “sliding vs. deciding.”
Couples who find themselves spending a lot of time at each other’s homes may think it just makes sense to start living together. They could not only share expenses, but they would find out what the other person is “really like” on an up-close-and-personal basis. Interestingly, women often see this as a step closer to marriage, while men are less likely to see it that way.
But deciding to live together without first becoming engaged — or “sliding into” cohabitation— can actually be detrimental, researchers have found. Apparently, people in general have higher standards for a spouse than they do for a live-in partner, yet as time goes on during cohabitation, those standards can get muddled.
Think of it as “relationship inertia,” as researcher Scott Stanley of the University of Denver calls it. A person you might not otherwise have married could end up being your spouse only because you have lived together for awhile. Marriage seems to be the next logical step in the relationship, even if the relationship isn’t that great, so you go ahead and take the plunge.
But once you start living together, it’s much more difficult to end the relationship than if you were still just dating. You might have a shared lease. You might co-own a pet. You might split utility bills. These entanglements might sway you to just keep living together instead of actually deciding to do so for relationship-based reasons.
In addition, once a couple starts living together, any alternative potential partners are seen as off limits, preventing an ongoing search for the best possible partner for you. You might start thinking, “This is as good as it gets,” and settle into marriage even if there are some big red warning flags of incompatibility.
In fact, for a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2009, researchers interviewed 1,050 people who had been married within the last 10 years. They found that those who lived together before becoming engaged reported lower marital satisfaction, dedication and confidence, as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce, than those who lived together only after becoming engaged or married.
Knowing what the experts have learned about cohabitation could make a difference for your life choices. Keep it in mind if you’re facing such a situation, and choose to decide — rather than slide into — the next phase of your relationship.
Family Fundamentals is a monthly column on family issues. It is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Family Fundamentals, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1044, or firstname.lastname@example.org.