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Research About Couples Who Live Together Before Marriage

May 5, 2023
Foundation Building

Should Couples Live Together Before Marriage? 

If you and your significant other see a future together and your desire is to get married, would you: 

  1. Live with each other first as a stepping stone to marriage or… 
  2. Spend lots of time together but avoid living with one another until you’re married? 

It’s a great question to consider. If you chose number one, you agree with the 44 – 66% of cohabiting adults who see living together as a step towards marriage. In fact, 78% of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe it’s OK for unmarried couples to live together, and 48% believe unmarried couples who live together first have a better chance of having a successful marriage. These statistics are from a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 10,000 U.S. adults. 

Even though these statistics represent the majority, the question remains, “Should couples live together before marriage?” More importantly, “Does living with each other before marriage increase marital success and satisfaction?” 

According to a recent April 2023 report on cohabitation, engagement, and divorce by Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades, 50 – 65% of Americans believe that living together before marriage will improve their odds of having a successful relationship. 

Drum roll please…decades of research does not support the belief that couples who live together before marriage will have a more successful marriage. Common sense lends itself to supporting the claim that as more couples live together before marriage, there will be less impact on marriage relationships. However, this does not hold true. Despite changing social norms, premarital cohabitation still remains a risk factor for divorce and is associated with lower marital satisfaction.  

One downside to premarital cohabitation is that it increases constraints. In other words, if you’re living with your significant other before marriage, you’re less likely to break up if red flags are present. Even though you’re not married, you’ve likely done at least one, if not more, of the following: signed a lease together, moved your clothes/belongings to his/her home, got a pet together, purchased furniture together and/or made a down payment on a vacation together. All of these can make it much harder to break up, even if you know it’s the right thing to do. 

Another disadvantage to premarital cohabitation is that one person is often more enthusiastic about the relationship and potential marriage than the other. The Sliding Versus Deciding Theory suggests that some couples slide into relationship transitions (dating to engaged, engaged to married) rather than intentionally deciding.  

In the April 2023 report, respondents who lived with their spouse before marriage were asked, “How did you start living together?” They chose one of the following three responses. 

  1. We didn’t think about it or plan it. 
  2. We talked about it, but then it just sort of happened. 
  3. We talked about it, planned it, and then made a decision together to do it. 

Those answering the third option were coded as making a decision about moving in together while those answering either of the first two options were coded as sliding into living together. Most people, 64%, slid into living together versus 36% who made a clear decision. 

Sliding versus deciding can be dangerous because as you grow more comfortable living with one another, it’s likely one person will be more excited about moving into the next step of the relationship, while the other will give into the idea because they don’t see any better options on the horizon. It’s a slippery slope—someone is usually walking on eggshells trying to convince their partner they’re worth committing to for the long haul i.e. getting married. 

According to the Pew Research Center, love and companionship are the top reasons couples choose to cohabitate or marry. From there though, the reasons people cohabitate versus get married differ. For example, 38% state financial reasons are a factor when choosing to move in together versus 14% who said this is a factor when choosing marriage. Additionally, 37% say cohabiting is “convenient” versus 10% who say marriage is. Lastly, almost a quarter of cohabitors, 23%, cite wanting to test their relationship as the reason for living together before marriage. 

Stanley and Rhoades’ report supports this data, as well. They concluded that the reasons for moving in together matter…a lot! In fact, people who reported that their top reason for moving in together was either to test the relationship or because it made sense financially were more likely to see their marriages end than those who did so because they wanted to spend more time with their partner. 

People who move in together to test their relationship likely already have some concerns, and moving in is not going to make it easier to break up if doubts remain—it is only going to make it more difficult. There are certainly better ways to “test your relationship” than choosing to cohabitate.  

Pay attention to how you feel when you are with your person. Keep the physical aspects of your relationship to a minimum in order to really get to know each other. If you’re already in a physical relationship, ask yourself, “If the physical aspects of our relationship didn’t exist, would we have a relationship at all?” Believe it or not, it’s not all about compatibility. Dedication to the relationship matters more. How committed are you to your relationship, even if that means dating for a longer period of time? What about your significant other? 

Consider the “two-year rule.” People are typically very willing to be on their best behavior in a relationship throughout the first year. It’s in the second year they become more comfortable being who they are. So, when you’re in a relationship you believe has the potential to be serious, being around that person through all four seasons of a year, at the very least, is smart, but being with them through a second year will be even more telling. People show you who they are via their words and behavior, and wise people pay attention. How do they respond to different social settings? How do they treat others? In their report, Stanley and Rhoades say, “Don’t choose a way to get more information that makes it harder to act on the information that you get.” 

So, should couples live together before marriage? Our society finds itself in a reality where a large portion of the population believes so or at least believes it’s OK. Our suggestion—heavily consider the research regarding couples who live together before marriage which shows that cohabiting impacts current and future relationships. Despite current cultural trends, premarital cohabitation remains a risk factor for divorce and is associated with lower marital satisfaction.

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