When I was dating my now-husband, Joseph, we spent a majority of our relationship long distance. We met in a tiny town in western Kansas doing mission work over the summer, hours away from home. Then, when we started dating, we lived an hour away from each other.
We went to different schools and only saw each other on the weekend. We put plenty of miles on our vehicles during our relationship. With the exception of school breaks and holidays, we rarely saw each other for more than two days in a row. Throughout our relationship, we communicated mainly through phone calls, text messages, and good ol’-fashioned love letters.
The Next Level is an Adjustment—For Everyone
Then, eight months after we started dating, Joseph proposed to me. After a ten-month long engagement, we tied the knot and started seeing each other a lot more than just on the weekends and holiday breaks. Although Joseph had lived with a roommate throughout college, and I had shared a room with two of my sisters most of my life, moving in together as husband and wife was a big adjustment for the both of us.
We shared everything—from our bed to our toothpaste. Although we’d had a little time between graduation and our wedding day to spend more time together, to some of our friends, it seemed risky to jump from a relationship to marriage without ever living in the same zip code.
Cohabitation, which used to be a rare occurrence, is now the norm. Between 2006 and 2010, nearly half of heterosexual women (48%) ages 15 to 44 said they were not married to their spouse or partner when they first lived with them. That number is up from 43% in 2002, and 34% in 1995.
Will The Marriage Prep Counselors Ask—or Won’t They?
When we went through marriage prep courses, our marriage counselors asked if we were living together. We replied that cohabitation was never an option we’d even considered. If I was going to move in with Joseph, it would be with a wedding ring on my finger. My heart desired commitment, and cohabitation didn’t fulfill that desire. Joseph wanted to be intentional about our relationship, so he had never considered asking me to move in with him, either.
Dr. Scott Stanley is a research professor and social scientist who has spent time studying cohabitation at the University of Denver. He notes,
“While all couples may be more likely to break up before marriage now than in the past, look toward something that really signals a commitment to figure out whether you and a partner have what it takes to go the distance. People are increasingly cohabiting in ways that are associated with greater risks to the aspiration of marital success. If you are aiming for marriage, aim for a solid choice in a partner and then look to form a public, mutual promise to marry.”
Dr. Stanley is not the only expert to have some red flags about cohabitation. Here are four more research-proven facts that you should know before you consider moving in with your significant other.
Sliding, not deciding
A study by researchers Alfred DeMars and Gerald Leslie found that those who live together prior to marriage scored lower on tests rating satisfaction with their marriages than couples who did not cohabit.
When you talk to a couple who is married, their marriage vows are a sign of their commitment to each other. For better or worse, in sickness or health, they’re sticking it out together.
When you talk to a couple who is engaged and preparing for marriage, you also get a sense of their level of commitment. They’ve decided to pursue a life together, and are making preparations for their wedding day and the rest of their lives together. Even couples who are dating and considering marriage together are talking about spending a lifetime together. “Those things all signal commitment,” Dr. Stanley writes. “Cohabitation, per se, very often does not.”
Instead of encouraging intentional commitment, cohabitation offers a chance to slide into a deeper relationship. And while it may seem like a convenient and economically sound decision to split rent between two, the lack of intentionality behind cohabitation also affects the happiness of the relationship if it does end in marriage.
Breaking up is hard to do
During cohabitation, you move in with a person you love. You have your fingers crossed that it will work out, and it won’t be a disaster. You split the rent, then start buy furniture together, sharing the internet connection, and getting a pet. You invest in the same friends and learn each other’s schedules. It makes breaking up really difficult.
“Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs. Living together can be fun and economical, and the setup costs are subtly woven in,” Meg Jay wrote in the New York Times. “Later, these setup and switching costs have an impact on how likely they are to leave.” A relationship that may not have lasted if you weren’t living together was stretched on because breaking up involved a moving truck and finding a new place.
Cohabitation isn’t always a step in the marriage plan
A 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage. But cohabitation isn’t always the middle step between dating and getting married. Instead, research by Karen Guzzo in 2014 revealed that cohabiting couples are more likely to break up than to get married.
“Relative to cohabitation formed between 1990 and 1994, cohabitation formed from 1995-1999, 2000-2004, and 2005 and later were 13%, 49%, and 87%, respectively, more likely to dissolve than remain intact,” her research reads. “The lower risk of marriage over remaining intact occurred only for the last two cohabitation cohorts (2000–2004 and 2005 and later), which were about 18% and 31% less likely to marry than remain intact, respectively.”
While commenting on Guzzo’s research, Dr. Stanley pointed out that this shift in the end result of cohabitation is new. “It used to be the case that a couple who moved in together was very likely to get married—and, engaged or not, had an awareness of this when moving in together. But most experts believe that has changed.” he writes. “Rather, on average, all types of cohabiting couples have become more likely than in the past to break up or not transition into marriage.”
It’s not good for families
Recent research is revealing that children of couples who are cohabiting and not married don’t do as well as children who live in a home where their parents are married. The major areas of difference are education, health, and financial stability.
“It is not cohabitation that is causing worse child outcomes, but the social conditions within which cohabitation takes place that may matter for child outcomes,” Corinne Reczek, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, writes.
“Bolstering the socioeconomic resources and residential stability of cohabiting unions is one way to ameliorate these potential negative effects.”
A choice for the good of our marriage
Deciding against cohabitation was a decision that Joseph and I made for the good of our marriage. When it came time to say our vows, we pledged to share everything together – from our finances to our children.
We wanted to enter into our marriage with intentionality and our eyes wide open. Cohabitation offers benefits of shared rent and familiarity, but it doesn’t equal the same commitment that comes with marriage.
For Joseph and I, we wanted to commit fully to each other and our future together. For us, that meant signing our marriage certificate before signing a lease together—and I’m glad we did.