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More couples than ever are living together before marriage. According to “The Downside of Cohabitation” in the April 15 edition of The New York Times, more than 7.5 million couples are living together; the majority of twenty-somethings will live with a partner at least once; and more than half of married couples will precede jumping the broom by shacking up. (Full disclosure: The author lived with her husband the year between their engagement and wedding.) Many of these couples will run the risk of something called the “cohabitation effect,” which I reckon is more correctly called the “not thinking before you leap” penalty.

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.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.

If you’re a traditionalist, wary of new-fangled sexual and romantic mores and about to scream “I told you so”–Hold on a minute. What researchers have found at the root of the cohabitation effect is that many couples enter living together by “sliding not deciding.” In other words, partners become roommates without clear plans for the future or the establishment of common goals for their relationship. The article notes that many women see living together as a precursor to marriage, while men often view it as convenience or a way to delay marriage. Both men and women are found to have lower standards for live-in partners than for spouses.

It’s not living together that makes couples less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce, it is the poor communication and poor planning that often accompany live-in arrangements. Those things would doom any marriage. In fact, the NYT article says couples who slide not decide (or, rather live together prior to engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) are most likely to feel the cohabitation effect.

What about you? Would you/have you lived with a romantic partner? Do you think living together helps or harms long-term commitment?

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  • binks

    No, I haven’t and would probably never lived with a mate until I’ am married. I don’t do the shacking up thing because it isn’t my style I feel like if you want the benefits of a wife and someone to come home too than put a ring on it. If not, oh well it is either my place or yours but no ours. I get that some people don’t generally want to be married so cohabitating works for them but for others who are hoping to get married I just don’t see how living together is helping you quicker down the aisle.

  • sholla21

    I would never live with some random guy aka any man who’s not my husband. That’s not how I was raised. I have my own place and I’m only giving up my freedom for marriage.

    The idea of cohabitating makes no sense to me. I’m not about to give myself wife headaches on a girlfriend/roommate status. Only a husband deserves 24/7 access to me and my undivided attention. Not some dude who’s not sure what he wants to do but wants the milk for free while he thinks about it. That’s not even an option. What a dowgrade. We make it official, otherwise, we’re just dating and you only get the limited time ‘dudes who are thinking about it’ get.

  • John Curtis, Ph.D.

    Regardless of one’s position on living together, perhaps, before or instead of marriage, the fact is the America has become a cohabitation nation. Years of condemnation and negative research studies have had no effect on slowing the rate of cohabitation since most couples reject the guilt laden, fear-mongering attempts to discourage their living arrangement.

    Instead, most cohabiters fear a failed marriage even more than the criticism, so opt to live together despite the odds. Now over 60% of all couples who marry will cohabit first and while the rate of marriage continues to decline, the rate of cohabitation will skyrocket since 75% of high school students believe living together is worthwhile and harmless.

    Additionally, many of the latest blogs and newspaper stories like this one that is critical of
    cohabiting are either using old research, in some cases going back years or the researchers are being quoted, out of context, to substantiate the reporter’s personal bias. Regardless of the results from the studies on cohabitation, please show me one couple who falls in love, decides to cohabit but as a result of a study on the downside of cohabiting, cancel their plans.

    Furthermore, if you consider the decades long trend… did you know that getting married increases the possibility of getting divorced to nearly 50%. However, when was the latest time you talked to someone who was planning a wedding but called it off due to the often-quoted, well known 50% failure rate of marriage?

    Like it or not, for many, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who just got engaged are the new family role model and cohabitation has become a viable institution for over 12 million Americans. Furthermore, if you base your anti-cohabitation opinion on concerns about children and family stability… here’s an interesting little known fact. A child born to a cohabiting couple in Sweden is more likely to grow to adulthood in the same stable home with the same unmarried parents than a child born to a married couple in America.

    Cohabitation does not destabilize marriages or families… people who do not understand
    commitment do. The goal needs to be teaching the meaning of commitment and walking down the aisle does NOT mean commitment. Another recent study found that among newlyweds… the ones who DID walk down the aisle, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women had an affair within two years of the wedding. Obviously, for millions of newlyweds, the wedding did not increase their commitment.

    The point here is that while many promote marriage as the “gold standard” for what ails American families, keep in mind that ANYONE of legal age can marry. On the other hand, I think we need to be putting more of an emphasis on building COMMITTED relationships which is something that requires lots of hard work and emotional maturity and can happen WITHOUT marriage, as evidenced by the Swedes.

    Yes, let’s keep pushing for changes that range from city initiatives by the clergy to educate couples before marrying, to changes in tax laws or to elimination of no-fault divorce. At the same time, let’s work to develop a productive response to the millions of cohabiting couples who are far too often judged, condemned and ignored by society.

    I think we must “re-invent” and raise our expectations of cohabitation, and our attitudes toward those who decide to live together. There is a commonly held myth that marriage means you will “live happily ever-after.” However, there is no similar assumption of cohabitation other than “it won’t last” which helps create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    It’s time to take a serious and non-judgmental look at cohabiting couples of all ages and help them strengthen and sustain their relationship whether they ever plan to marry. Let’s consider finding a new approach to this reality.

  • No

    I lived with my fiance before we got engaged. He made it clear he would be making a commitment within a year so I did not worry about it. Now we are happily engaged and planning a wedding for next year. My advice is to get a CLEAR idea of your man’s intentions first.

  • Allistewart

    I knew someone who ran away with her boyfriend when she was 19yrs old. They lived together for 32 years and produced 9 children. He married her while he was on his death bed (this was done so that she could stay in the house they owned along with the 9 children. If he didn’t marry her his family could take everything he owned because she had no rights as common-law spouse. This happened in one of the Caribbean islands but the laws have since changed). While this man was alive and in good health he always had an excuse when friends asked when he would get married. He like all other live together guys got the benefits of a wife without a ring. Having witness this as a child, I made a promise to myself never to live with a man before marriage. I did as I promised and have been married to a wonderful man for the past 23 years.