Statistically, your 26 year-old daughter is fast approaching the average age for marriage in the United States. One day she tells you that she and her boyfriend are thinking about living together, and she wants to know if you think this is a good idea. What do you say? What is the informed response?
About half of all couples entering their first marriage today live together – or cohabit, to use the jargon of demographers and census-takers – before marriage, and there are at least 10 times as many couples living together today than there were just 30 years ago (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Smock, 2000). This is a huge increase when it comes to demographic trends, and the common intuition seems to be: “It’s a great idea to live together first -- you can see if you get along before making a serious and life-long commitment.” Contrary to popular wisdom, though, cohabiting relationships tend to be less stable than marriages, and marriages in which people cohabited together prior to the wedding tend to be less stable than those in which the partners did not cohabit. How could it be that spending more time with your partner is detrimental to the relationship? As you might imagine, it depends on who is doing the spending and how that time is being spent.
Is there something inherently bad about living together before marriage? Probably not. The relationship instability that goes along with cohabitation seems rooted instead in the characteristics of the people who opt to cohabit and in the relationships that they form. For example, people who live together before marriage are more likely to come from unstable family backgrounds than those who do not cohabit, to be less religious, and to have fewer years of formal education. Partners in cohabiting relationships also report higher levels of aggression in their relationships (e.g., Kenney & McLanahan, 2006) and more problems resolving disagreements (Hsueh, Morrison, & Doss, 2009). Among young couples who have gone on to marry, those who lived together prior to marriage try to control one another more, they display more anger and verbal aggressiveness, and they tend to escalate more in their disagreements (Cohan & Kleinbaum, 2002). These are real differences – statements and expressions that trained observers can see just from watching videotapes of couples’ conversations.
Simple enough, but here is an interesting comparison that drives home the point that it is who cohabits and the relationship they create, more so than cohabitation itself, that is responsible for these differences. Imagine if you could compare the couples who lived together before they were engaged (that is, before there was a formal commitment to the relationship) with those who lived together only after they were engaged but still before their wedding. What would you expect? Are both groups doomed? No, because cohabitation is not the culprit. The former group of couples reports more verbal aggression and more negative interactions after they marry, and actually displays more destructive communication when discussing relationship issues (Kline et al., 2004). Both groups cohabited before marriage, but the group that did so in the absence of a life-long commitment faced more risks after the marriage started. And even though they were still quite happy as newlyweds, they were less confident about their future together.
What’s going on here? The ways cohabiting partners are appraising their relationship, and the ways they make decisions about whether they should be moving ahead to formalize it, tell us a lot about how that relationship is going to evolve in the future. And on what grounds do couples make these appraisals? Here, experiences with conflict in the relationship loom large. Psychologist Galena Kline and her colleagues (2004, p. 316) speculated that “negative interaction patterns may be part of the reason some couples decide to move in together before committing to marriage. These couples may be in love, but may also wish to ‘test’ their relationships because they are having some trouble getting along.”
This same team of researchers then asked a new group of couples who had been cohabiting for about a year and half to answer questions about why they were cohabiting. All of these questions boiled down to just three reasons: because partners wanted to be more connected on a daily basis, because it was convenient or economical for them to combine households, or because they were testing the relationship to see if they truly were compatible (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009). Results showed that to the extent people reported a need to test their relationship they also tended to be in conflict-ridden relationships: greater concerns about long-term compatibility went along with more conflict and more harsh words being exchanged. These communication problems did not correlate in any systematic way with ratings on the other two reasons for cohabiting.
So here is the smart response to your daughter’s question: in and of itself, cohabitation is not bad for relationships, but the people who do cohabit are not a random slice of the population; how does that work for your daughter and her boyfriend? Second, high levels of conflict are likely to be inherently detrimental to relationships, and couples’ decisions to live together rather than marry may pivot on how well they are dealing with the differences that are arising between them. So how much arguing is going on? Why? How does it get resolved? Couples with a lot of unresolved or poorly resolved differences are wise to be hesitant, and to put their relationship to the test, given what we know about the harmful effects of mismanaged conflict on the intimate bonds that people are hoping to create. As the wise parent, you probably already know what constitutes a passing grade for this important test.
Bumpass, L.L., & Lu, H.H. (2000). Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family contexts in the United States. Population Studies, 54, 29-41.
Cohan, C.L., & Kleinbaum, S. (2002). Toward a greater understanding of the cohabitation effect: Premarital communication and marital communication. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 64, 180-192.
Hsueh, A., Morrison, K.R., & Doss, B.D. (2009). Qualitative reports of problems in cohabiting relationships: Comparisons to married and dating relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 236-246.
Kenney, C.T., & McLanahan, S. (2006). Why are cohabiting relationships more violent than marriages? Demography, 43, 127-140.
Kline, G.H., and colleagues (2004). Timing is everything: Pre-engagement cohabitation and increased risk for poor marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 18, 311-318.
Rhoades, G.K., Stanley, S.M., Markman, H.J. (2009). Couples’ reasons for cohabitation: Associations with individual well-being and relationship quality. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 233-258.
Smock, P.J. (2000). Cohabitation in the United States: An appraisal of research themes, findings, and implications. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 1-20.