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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