Many couples struggle when deciding whether they are going to live together before marriage. Some are pro and others are anti, with the arguments on both sides of the fence having their own strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, most people who are pro-cohabitation will claim that you can never really get to know someone without living with him/her (Brien et al., 2006). Therefore, you should live with your mate before you marry so that the two of you can decide whether your partner is marriage material. In addition, many pro-cohabitation individuals believe that it's more practical to combine your and your partner's income, rent, utilities, and other bills. You can save a lot of money with one mortgage instead of two. Other anti-cohabitation individuals claim that couples who live together before marriage are living in sin. And, that your partner may not ever feel the need to get married if you already live together and share everything. Some also believe that living together is such a huge part of marriage and that it should be saved for that special someone, who you are already married to. With a divorce rate of nearly 50% in the U.S., this is a pretty important matter.
Regardless of your opinion on this issue (we all either have or have heard good and bad examples of both lifestyle choices), cohabitation is a growing trend in our society, with over half of first marriages being preceded by cohabitation at the end of the 20th century (compared to virtually none in the beginning of the century) (Bumpass & Lu, 1998). Furthermore, 1 in 3 single women choose to live with their partners before marriage, compared to 1 in 10 in the 1950s (Witman, 1997). Interestingly, in 1999, cohabitation rates were 8.2% for Mormons, 24% for Protestants, 23.1% for Catholics, 32.5% for Jews, and 44.8% for nonreligious Americans (Mims, 1999).
With all of these people doing it, what could go wrong? Well, according to Bumpass and Sweet (1990), cohabitating couples have an 80%+ chance that their relationships will end (40% will break up before marriage and the other 40% will divorce within 10 years) and have a rate of separation that is five times that of married couples. Also, the proportion of separating or divorcing within 10 years of marriage was 1/3 higher for those who cohabitated than for those who did not. Yowza! Those are pretty bad stats.
BUT WAIT! All is not lost! Many researchers (e.g., Seltzer, 2000), including Bumpass and Sweet, have provided a number of explanations as to what may be driving down these statistics and why many of them seem to always vote in favor of marriage-before-mortgage.
- AGE & EXPERIENCE: Couples who cohabit tend to be younger and therefore may make careless decisions about who they should and should not live with. Younger couples may be blinded by the love that they feel for one another that they don't think everything through before they sign a lease together. This could definitely cause problems in any relationship, increasing the probability that the relationship or marriage will fail.
- MONEY: Many people who live together before marriage may be combining resources because one or both of them cannot survive on his or her own income. Individuals who have less economic resources may feel forced to live with a new partner early on in the relationship so that they can put food on their table and pay their bills. Unfortunately, things may not pan out the way you thought they would when you decide to live with someone too early in your relationship. Additionally, a large body of literature has also shown that the risk of divorce is increased when the wife is working outside of the home and especially when the wife is working more hours than her husband (see Kalmijn, Loeve, & Manting, 2007 for a review). So, if you already have a low income that caused you to move in with your partner early on and then to work long hours, your relationship is going to be difficult to maintain.
- EDUCATION: Many couples who cohabit are less educated than individuals who marry first. Again, critical thinking skills are necessary when making life-changing decisions like moving in together or getting married. The less education one has, the more likely he or she is to have poor critical thinking skills.
- RELIGIOSITY: Still other cohabitating couples are not very religious, which could make them less willing to marry and also have less conventional ideas about romantic relationships in general.
What does all of this mean? In general, cohabitating doesn't seem like it's a good idea. But, when you take a closer look at the statistics, you can see that there are many groups of people who are pulling the stats towards the "cohabitation is living in sin" side. In my opinion (a young, non-religious, educated individual who cohabitated for 3 years before marrying), as long as you and your partner can have a serious, open, thorough conversation about what life will be like when the two of you finally shack-up (maybe you could talk about some of the things from this post), you rigorously examine all of the reasons you both have for wanting to move in together in the first place, and you honestly discuss what the future holds for your relationship, I think you'll be just fine. If you are not willing to have this in-depth (and sometimes quite difficult) conversation with your partner, then maybe you shouldn't live in sin just yet.
- Brien, M. J., Lillard, L. E., & Stern, S. N. (2006). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce in a model of match equality. International Economic Review, 47, 451-494.
- Bumpass, L., & Lu. H-H (1998). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children's family contexts. Unpublished manuscript, Madison, WI: Cener for Demography, University of Wisconsin.
- Bumpass, L., & Sweet, J. (1990). Changing patterns of remarriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 747-756.
- Kalmijn, M., Loeve, A., & Manting, D. (2007). Income dynamics in couples and the dissolution of marriage and cohabitation. Demography, 44, 159-179.
- Seltzer, J. A. (2000). Families formed outside of marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1247-1268.