Was Living Together Before Marriage Your Fatal Mistake?

Couples who cohabit before marriage tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not.
Publish date:
March 5, 2014
marriage, elizabeth street, moving in, relationship talk, living together

My mother always told me living together was a prerequisite for marriage. Two years was her golden number, though I’m not sure exactly how she landed on that figure. Her reasoning, I assume, was that there’s a certain advantage to encountering those inevitable surprises that come with marriage — she can’t bring herself to do laundry come hell or high water, he’s incapable of sticking to a budget — before you’ve made the binding decision to “put a ring on it.” Ideally, if you’ve had these realizations about your partner’s habits and character before the big day, the disappointment’s behind you, not ahead of you. Of course, living together isn’t the equivalent of marriage, but it can negate some of the stress of merging your life with another’s.

However, according to a recent New York Times Op-Ed, cohabitation in the U.S. is now less about prophylaxis than it is a risk in and of itself. “In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, ‘You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.’ About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce. But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect,” writes Times correspondent Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia.

In an era of birth control, competitive real estate prices and an overall abysmal economic climate, splitting costs 50/50 seems like a pretty sweet deal. It follows that, these days, most people in their 20s live with a romantic partner at least once. Originally, researchers attributed the cohabitation effect to selection. After all, the kinds of people who opt to move in together and “live in sin” ostensibly have less traditional views of marriage, ergo they’re more likely to break their vows and hire a divorce attorney when the going gets tough.

This is not, in fact, the case. Studies demonstrate that the risk lies not in individuals’ religious preferences, level of education or politics, but the act of cohabitation itself. Many couples fall into the trap of what researchers term “sliding, not deciding.” Going from dating to sleeping over to constantly sleeping over to deciding they might as well move in together is a slippery slope. With no marriage certificates involved, this final, significant step often comes without a discussion of each partner’s agenda, and how they view cohabitation. Women, surveys show, tend to see it as a step towards marriage, while men are more likely to view it as a means of testing a relationship and postponing a more tangible commitment. Plus, both men and women admit that their standards for romantic roommates, as it were, are lower than they are for a spouse. Months or years later, couples wind up “locked-in” to these low-cost living situations, the thought of switching costs counter-weighing any desire they have to leave.

Although these findings may be disturbing to anyone who’s tentatively made the decision to shack up with their significant other, there are some major counterpoints to the argument that “moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake.”

For one, a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage. Secondly, there is something to be said for the growth and perspective that comes from “trying out” multiple people. Even if the person you’re living with isn’t “the one,” it’s a valuable opportunity to learn a lot about people, how you are in a domestic living situation, and the bad habits and quirks you can or cannot stand. Just be sure to give the decision — and your partner — the consideration they deserve. Remain self-aware, and always remember: Moving can be a pain in the ass, but relocating while going through a divorce is ten times as hard.

Did you and your partner live together before you said your vows? If so, for how long? If not, do you regret it? Let us know in the comments below.

Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Street. Want more?

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