Should You Live Together Before Marriage?

Many couples in the United States are choosing to live together before marriage, but experts say this is a backwards way of establishing a relationship. Should you enter into an intimate relationship with someone without being married?

Living together before marriage has many pros and cons. It is important to understand the pros and cons of living together before marriage in order for you to make a decision.

Getting a roommate. I’m a sinner.

Cohabitating with a significant other before marriage was frowned upon fifty years ago, and it was generally considered immoral.

Today, the situation is quite different. Since the 1960s, the number of people living together before getting married has climbed by 1500 percent, with a 30 percent increase in the previous decade. In 1981, over half of Americans disapproved of the arrangement; a quarter-century later, that percentage had dropped to 27%. Cohabitation is now the precursor to two-thirds of new marriages.

Why has it become so usual to live together before marriage? There are several explanations for this.

The first is, of course, the secularization of culture as a whole. Living together before to marriage infers that a couple is sleeping together prior to marriage, which is against the religious prohibition on premarital sex. The societal/familial guilt around cohabitation has substantially decreased, while its acceptability has drastically increased, as religious rules have grown less influential in the society and adherence to them has been looser.

Other, more practical causes for the rise in cohabitation rates might be found. Couples, for example, sometimes claim the financial advantage of sharing rent, utilities, furnishings, and other expenses as a reason for moving in together.

However, the most common reason couples choose to live together before marriage is to test their long-term compatibility, especially in relation to marriage. Men and women alike have come to consider cohabitation as a low-risk, low-cost opportunity to try out a marriage-like relationship and avoid the errors of their parents, having grown up as the offspring of divorce. In fact, two-thirds of young people feel that living together before marriage is a good strategy to avoid divorce and have a happy marriage.

Is that premise supported by evidence?

This question is often answered in an unsatisfying manner. Those with a religious purpose typically cherry-pick earlier studies that portray cohabitation in a bad light while dismissing more current research that presents a more favorable perspective. However, proponents of cohabitation might be dismissive of important research that puts doubt on its advantages, instead focusing on anecdotal evidence of its positive and protective effects.

As is customary, reality is a little more intricate than most people realize. In reality, the available information contradicts both pro and con camp viewpoints.

Today, we’ll look at both sides of the argument, reviewing studies produced only by non-sectarian, non-partisan academic organizations and presenting statistics on the advisability of living together before marriage that are both widely distributed and usually overlooked.

The answer to the issue of whether or not to participate in premarital cohabitation is a straightforward “no” for the religiously dedicated. However, for those couples who are unsure of their position, the following information is intended to assist them in thinking through a question that isn’t often taken as seriously as it should be, and in making a more informed decision that will have a significant impact on their individual and mutual happiness.

The Impact of Cohabitation on Marriage Stability and Satisfaction

On the surface, it would seem logical that couples who had previously tried out the idea of living together and thoroughly explored their compatibility would be better equipped to make an educated choice about whether or not to marry, and so have a more stable and successful marriage.

 

However, almost a dozen studies published since the 1970s have shown that cohabitation before to marriage is associated with worse marital satisfaction and stability, as well as a greater risk of divorce. This extensive study discovered that couples who lived together before marrying were 33 percent more likely to divorce than those who did not.

This perplexing discovery was dubbed “the cohabitation effect,” and it was widely assumed that it had more to do with who chose to cohabitate than with cohabitation itself. Because more “unconventional” people — those who were less religious and less dedicated to the institution of marriage — were more likely to live together before marrying, they were also more likely to seek a divorce if things went wrong. As a result, the cohabitation impact was more of a correlation than a cause.

While there is plenty of evidence to support this theory, most studies still found the cohabitation effect after controlling for religion, politics, and education, leading researchers to conclude that cohabitation itself, not just who practiced it, had some effect on increasing the likelihood of divorce and lowering marital satisfaction.

Nonetheless, as cohabitation has grown more popular and accepted by a larger and more traditional segment of the community, its negative influence on divorce has decreased, if not vanished entirely. A new research that looked just at couples who had been married after 1996 showed no relationship between cohabitation before to marriage and subsequent instability. “The connection between premarital cohabitation and marital instability for first marriages may have lessened over time since it is less evident for more recent birth cohorts,” according to a 2012 CDC analysis.

However, it’s crucial to remember that, although there is some evidence that cohabitation isn’t damaging to marital stability, there isn’t any proof that it is beneficial. It doesn’t make you more likely to divorce, but it also doesn’t make you less likely.

Furthermore, even when couples who lived together before marriage do not divorce, there is evidence that they are less pleased in their marriage than those who moved in after the wedding. Many older studies have linked prenuptial cohabitation to lower marital satisfaction, while more recent research found that married couples who lived together before getting married (or engaged) “had more negative interactions, lower interpersonal commitment, lower relationship quality, and lower relationship confidence,” and were nearly twice as likely to have suggested divorce at some point, even when controlling for selection factors.

All of this is to argue that, contrary to common belief, you’d have to be insane to marry someone you’d never lived with before, cohabitation has no protective benefit and no advantage over moving in together after the wedding.

“No beneficial contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been observed,” says one researcher.

What accounts for this seemingly illogical conclusion?

 

It’s possible that cohabitation isn’t the best way to prepare for marriage. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay, who works with twenty-somethings, writes in her book The Defining Decade that living with one’s significant other is more like “an intersection between college roommate and sex partner than a permanent commitment between two couples.” She explains a typical cohabiting couple’s experience as follows:

“They had the vague idea of putting their relationship to the test, but they didn’t do things like pay a mortgage, try to get pregnant, get up in the middle of the night with kids, spend holidays with in-laws when they didn’t want to, save for college and retirement, or see each other’s paychecks and credit-card bills.”

“There are certain advantages to living with someone,” Jay concludes, “but resembling marriage is not one of them.”

It’s also possible that the beneficial effect of getting to know all of a partner’s lifestyle peculiarities over a period of non-marital living is counterbalanced by the unfavorable relationship behaviors developed during that time.

“Spouses who cohabited before marriage demonstrated more negative and less positive problem solving and support behaviors compared to spouses who did not cohabit,” according to research, which held true even after controlling for “sociodemographic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal functioning variables.” Researchers believe that since living together before marriage is seen as a possibly transitory “test drive,” couples are less motivated to fully dive in and master the conflict resolution skills that are necessary for a strong long-term relationship and marriage. A pattern of partial commitment develops throughout the cohabitation time, even if it is unconscious, and is subsequently carried over into married life.

Even more relevant in the lower happiness of couples who lived together before being married is the possibility that they “settled” for each other, rather than making a more deliberate choice to marry.

Choosing vs. Sliding 

Moving through big changes consciously, according to studies, is one of the keys to strong, happy partnerships. Couples that undertake these changes with intention — with joint discussion of meaning, expectations, goals, and purpose — are more likely to prosper, whether they’re having sex, moving in together, getting married, or having a kid.

Unfortunately, premarital cohabitation usually has the unintended consequence of lowering the intentionality required for a successful marriage transition.

“Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation may be a slow slope, one that isn’t marked by rings or ceremonies or even a discussion,” Jay observes.

This dynamic is referred to as “sliding vs. deciding” by research professor Scott Stanley.

Two-thirds of cohabiting couples are sliders, who didn’t talk much about their choice to live together. It simply kind of occurred that way.

This lack of consideration might be owing to the widespread belief that living together is a relatively low-risk proposition: if things don’t work out, we’ll just split up and move out. It’s simple enough.

 

While breaking up while living together is obviously simpler administratively and legally than obtaining a divorce, many couples underestimate how tough it is psychologically. Cohabiters, as Jay shows, fail to predict how consumer “lock-in” and “switching costs” work not just in the marketplace, but also in relationships, and may make sliding into a relationship far more difficult than sliding out:

“Once you’ve made an investment in something, you’re less likely to look for other possibilities or switch to a different one.” The setup cost, also known as the start-up cost, may be large or modest. A kind of document. An entry charge is required. The tedious process of opening an internet account. A deposit on a vehicle. The more the setup expenditures, the less probable it is that we will eventually shift to a better scenario. However, even a little investment might result in lock-in, particularly when switching costs are involved. The costs of switching—the time, money, or effort required to make a change—are more complicated. Switching costs are hypothetical and in the future when we make an initial investment in anything, therefore we tend to underestimate them. It’s easy to think that when the time comes, we’ll merely acquire a new credit card or cope with breaking a lease. The issue is that when the time comes, the switching costs seem to be more up close than they were from afar.

Cohabitation comes with a lot of setup and switching expenses, which are the foundations of lock-in. Moving in together may be both enjoyable and cost-effective, especially if the setup fees are included in. We cheerfully divided the rent on a wonderful one-bedroom apartment after years of living amid a roommate’s junky old items. Couples share Wi-Fi and dogs, and they like going furniture shopping together. These setup expenditures have an impact on our likelihood of leaving later.”

Breaking up gets very tough after a couple has established a shared residence, habit, dog, and circle of friends. Separating two lives that have been so deeply intertwined, and beginning afresh, will require a lot of work; the notion seems a bit intimidating. It seems to be simpler to simply maintain things as they are, even if they aren’t perfect. Inertia takes over.

People lose out on possibilities to date individuals with whom they could be a better match as a consequence of prematurely “locking in” to their roommate/lover. “I have clients who say, ‘I spent years of my 20s living with someone who I wouldn’t have dated a year if we hadn’t been living together,’” Jay said in an interview.

Even more dismal is research that claims “couples who would not have married otherwise wind up wedded due to the inertia of cohabitation.” “We may as well share an apartment because we’re already spending so much time together,” they say as they glide down the aisle. “We may as well remain together since I might not be able to meet someone else,” then “we might as well get married because we’ve already been living together for so long,” and lastly “we might as well get married because we’ve already been living together for so long.”

 

This is particularly true if the pair is over thirty and a growing number of their acquaintances are marrying. The idea of meeting someone new as the pool of potential partners shrinks, and of being single while everyone else settles down, might inspire couples to stay together and take what seems to be the next step in their relationship and life, despite their reservations. A bird in hand seemed to be preferable than two in the bush.

The sliding effect associated with premarital cohabitation, according to Jay, may eventually prevent couples from feeling like they intentionally picked one other, resulting in increased uncertainty and less enjoyment in their marriage:

“Building a connection based on convenience and ambiguity might obstruct our ability to claim the people we care about.” We should all be certain that we choose our relationships and that our partners choose us because we want to be with them, not because remaining together or splitting up is convenient.”

She ends by saying:

“I’m neither for or against living together, but I am for twentysomethings understanding that, rather than protecting them from divorce, moving in with someone enhances their odds of locking in on someone, whether or not that person is suitable for them.”

Conclusion

To summarize the results, premarital cohabitation neither raises nor reduces your likelihood of divorce, but it may generate an intentionality-dampening dynamic that increases your risk of getting into a less-than-ideal marriage.

However, the risk of slipping vs. choosing doesn’t imply you have to wait until you’re married to live together.

According to studies, couples who do not cohabitate serially, only live with the person they end up marrying and waiting to move in together until they are engaged have the same rate of marital stability and compatibility as those who only move in together after walking down the aisle. Having a decided plan to marry, as part of the engagement rite, conveys the type of ambiguity-slaying intentionality that leads to a joyful marriage.

But, if you’re going to wait till after you’re engaged to live together, why not wait a little longer and move in after you’ve married? It will have no detrimental impact on your prospects of married bliss and lifespan from an objective perspective. From a subjective standpoint, it will greatly increase the transforming power of a ceremony designed to unite two lives. Because our society and lives are so similar, it pays to consciously create moments of memorable, significant, heightened drama for oneself. It’s one thing to say “I do” and immediately return to the same old flat you’ve been sharing for a long time, and quite another to bring your wife over a threshold into a new habitation, a new existence that’s no longer mine or hers, but ours.

For more more on this issue, listen to our podcast with Scott Stanley: 

 

 

 

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The “disadvantages of living together before marriage” is the idea that there are many disadvantages to living in a relationship before getting married. One of these disadvantages is that it can be difficult to break up with someone while you live together.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it a good idea to live together before marriage?

A: I am not qualified to answer that question.

Why living together before marriage is a bad idea?

A: There are a number of reasons live-in relationships can be harmful to marital stability. This includes the fact that often times, people in these types of relationships have different expectations and boundaries with regards to finances and parenting responsibilities. It is also possible for some couples levels of trust or intimacy to become eroded over time by issues such as infidelity, jealousy or lack of communication.

Is it a sin to live together before marriage?

A: This question is not about sin but rather a legal matter. The answer to this is that yes, it can be against the law for two people who are unmarried to live together without being married first.

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