Between half and two-thirds of Americans think living together before committing to marriage will help couples forge a lasting relationship and a marriage that endures.
They’ve got it backwards, according to findings of two University of Denver research psychology professors who note that unless a couple is at least definitely engaged before they move in together, the relationship is at increased risk of falling apart.
In the just released “What’s the Plan? Cohabitation, Engagement and Divorce” report, authors Scott M. Stanley and Galena K. Rhoades note that “with 70% of couples living together before marriage, it is important to understand how and when cohabitation is associated with poorer odds of marital success.” The report was published last week by the Institute for Family Studies.
The two have studied aspects of cohabitation for more than two decades. But both remain surprised that as the world has changed — and three decades of cohabitation patterns with it — the finding on marriage durability hasn’t.
Cohabitation is now more a part of dating culture than of marriage culture, according to Stanley. The exception is when couples have already agreed their plan is to wed.
“Waiting until after marriage, or at least waiting until after you’re engaged really seems to be protective,” Stanley told the Deseret News. “It’s an amazing thing that that finding is still there, with what are otherwise massive changes in the landscape of cohabitation.”
- Living together first probably won’t lead to a happy marriage
The report is based on a national sample of Americans who married for the first time between 2010 and 2019, looking at what had happened and how stable the marriages were in 2022. They found marriage dissolution was higher for those who lived together before tying the knot. That’s not new.
But this is: “The timing of moving in together is robustly associated with marital instability,” they reported. Thirty-four percent of the time, married couples who had lived together before they were engaged or married ended up divorced within the time frame studied. That’s in contrast to less than one-fourth of the marriages of those who were engaged or married before they decided to move in together.
Rhoades said that engagement likely has virtually the same protective effect as marriage — there’s no statistical difference — because it, too, is a public declaration of commitment. The couple has agreed they want to be together and are planning to share their future.
“Public signals are more powerful,” Stanley said. “You can misinterpret a private signal or your partner can be leading you on. But when you announce to other people this is us going into the future, you’re not likely to get it wrong.”
That difference is striking. “In relative terms, the marriages of those who moved in together before being engaged were 48% more likely to end than the marriages of those who only cohabited after being engaged or already married,” the report said.
The worst odds for marital stability and lasting power went to those who moved in together to “test” their relationship before marriage or who were driven by financial reasons.
Everybody does it
The report found that by the late 1990s, more than 60% of high school students in the U.S. had accepted the idea that “it is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.” The estimate is that 70% of couples live together before marrying now.
But instead of becoming a practice that made couples less likely to split, over time couples “became increasingly likely to break up rather than marry, increasing the disconnection between cohabitation and marriage,” the report says. “As cohabitation has become more common, so has having a history of cohabiting with more than one partner, which is associated with reduced odds of ever marrying, as well as increased odds of divorce,” it adds.
The study is based on a survey conducted by YouGov between July 28 and Aug. 29, 2022. The sample included 1,621 Americans who were no older than 50, had never had a previous marriage, wed between 2010 and 2019 and were not widowed. Marital dissolution that occurred after August 2022 is not captured in the data.
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Selection —factors like being more religious and thus less likely to live together without a commitment — may play a role, but Rhoades and Stanley don’t think those things tell the whole story. They note that experience may, like selection, contribute to the pattern, too. Something about living together could account for the increased risk of divorce. The researchers say living together could change how people think about issues like marriage.
It also creates inertia. “Our theory,” they write, “is that moving in together can prematurely increase the inertia for remaining together prior to a couple making a clear commitment to a future in marriage.”
But it doesn’t increase commitment. While living together makes it harder to break up, it doesn’t make marriage more bulletproof. And per Rhoades, “sliding” into a live-in relationship instead of actually deciding shared future goals is linked to higher risk of breaking up before getting married or divorcing if you did marry.
One reason those couples have a higher risk for divorce may be that “when you move in together without having a clear mutual commitment to a future together, they didn’t really make a decision. That may set them up to slide through other traditional milestones,” she said.
Stanley said couples sometimes take on too much before they’re ready for it, including sometimes parenthood. “Some are stuck in a place where they probably would have left.”
Cohabiting, he added, has become part of the dating phase of life, rather than the settling down, married part because couples who cohabit are actually less likely to ever make it to the altar at all.
Why couples cohabit
When the married couples were asked why they had first lived together, the researchers found that:
- 44% wanted to spend more time with their partner; of those, 23% later divorced.
- 22% said it made sense financially; 40% of those divorced.
- 17% said they wanted to test the relationship. One-third of them divorced.
- 17% said it was “inconvenient” to live apart. Of those, 29% divorced.
Once you live together, “external constraints to live together ramp up,” she said. Children, for instance. Rent. A lease. Your social network. Those same things happen when you marry, but if you were engaged or married before you live together, the impact is different, Rhoades said. “You’ve already made a commitment to be together” and that intertwining is desirable, rather than what could be unwanted pressure.
The report also shows that among those who cohabited but later married, 72% had not lived with any other romantic partner outside of marriage before. Sixteen percent have lived with one other person. And 12% had lived with two or more previous partners.
Stanley and Rhoades note those numbers only include folks who did marry. But research shows those who cohabit more than once are the least likely group to ever marry.
Making it last
The report offers some advice on achieving a successful marriage. Among the tips:
- Don’t believe suggestions that cohabiting will improve the chance of a lasting marriage.
- Slow down. “Timing and sequence can help you land on the right relationship path,” the two researchers write.
- Make decisions about romantic relationships, instead of drifting, including decisions about living together outside of a formal, declared commitment. Stanley calls that “Decide, don’t slide.”
- Don’t cohabit to test drive the relationship.
- Don’t do it to save money, either.
For a lot of people, that advice comes late because so many couples are already living together without having decided whether they’ll marry. Rhoades told the Deseret News it’s a good idea for those couples to have a real conversation — or more than one — about why they’re together and what they expect the future to hold for the relationship. Talk about plans and intentions regarding marriage.
The report’s advice?
“If you’re concerned about your marriage, either because of your relationship history or because of current dynamics between you and your partner, work on it. Put in the effort to understand what the issues are, do your part to make it better and don’t slide into separation. Get outside information and help. Many books, online resources, workshops and therapy services exist to support you.”
The report includes a list of those resources.