Living Together, Part 3: Marry first or just move in?

Wedding Cake by Kim Marius Flakstad If religion isn't part of the equation, living together before marriage seems to be a logical choice - couples can see if they're compatible before making the explicit marital commitment, and they can share rent and other expenses. However, a quick Google search on the topic brings up thousands of stories, some proclaiming that cohabitation is a good idea, and most saying that it's bad. Looking at the actual research behind the headlines is eye-opening.

As recently as August 2009, articles published in the Journal of Marriage and Family were examining the issue of commitment, relationship quality, and risk of separation in couples who lived together and those who were married. Wiik and his colleagues looked at information gathered from almost 3000 couples in Sweden and Norway, and discovered that unmarried couples who lived together were less serious and less satisfied about their relationship than married couples were. Cohabitors were more likely to have thought about separation. This is where most of the online stories end. However, Wiik looked more closely at the data, and found that couples who lived together but planned to marry within two years were more serious, satisfied, and committed to their relationship than those with no marriage plans. In other words, not all unmarried couples who live together are alike!

Children further complicate the picture. In a study by Tach and Halpern-Meekin (from Harvard University) published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, couples were questioned about their relationship every 2 years between 1992 and 2006. They found that unmarried couples who lived together were less satisfied than their married counterparts, and lower levels of satisfaction were consistent over the 14 years of the study. However, once kids were taken out of the picture, things changed - unmarried cohabitors without kids were just as satisfied in their relationships as married couples. They concluded that studies finding differences in relationship quality between married and unmarried couples were influenced by unmarried parents. They used pretty strong language, too:

Any nonmarital birth, whether with a future spouse or someone else, is associated with poorer future marital quality.

In December 2007, another Journal of Marriage and Family study examined the impact of kids on the relationships of married and unmarried couples. Osborne and her colleagues followed a group of parents until their kids were 3 years old. About 50% of unmarried parents had separated by the time their baby was 3, whereas only 10% of the married couples did. After accounting for a number of possible differences between the married and unmarried group, unmarried parents were 2.5 times more likely to separate than married ones.

Taken together, the findings seem to suggest that the intentions behind moving in together matter - if cohabitation begins with the intention of eventually getting married, the relationship will probably resemble that of a married couple. Testing compatibility by moving in together seems less likely to be successful in the long term. A possible reason for this is the development of a typical relationship over time - the transition from highly passionate individuals who emphasize their similarities and compatibility to less passionate partners who are more aware of their differences. If problems arise in a relationship, is the married couple more likely to seek help (such as going to couples therapy) than a couple who is trying to see if the partners are compatible? It seems that couples who have made the explicit commitment that they plan to spend their lives together are more likely to "tough it out" - whether they live together before or after the wedding. Being a parent is a stressor in any relationship, and it seems that relationships without that marital bond are far more likely to buckle under that strain.

Despite all of these findings, you'll probably agree that every relationship is different, and you might know couples who don't fit with the findings of the research on large groups. I think it's still helpful for partners to be aware of the potential outcomes of decisions to live together or separately! Regardless of whether you're married or living together, if you're having trouble in your relationship, couples therapy might help. One great book on the subject, that was first recommended to me by a marital therapist, is Fighting for Your Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love (New & Revised).

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The Journal of Marriage and Family can be found here.

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