Force of Cohabit: Making or Breaking a Marriage?

By Ellen McCarthy
via Washington Post

It seems, to many, like the sensible thing to do: Move in with your
boyfriend or girlfriend, spend more time together, save money by splitting
the rent and see if you can share a bathroom every morning without wanting
to kill each other.

But if you were Scott Stanley’s kid, he’d beg you not to do it.

Stanley, a University of Denver psychologist, has spent the past 15 years
trying to figure out why premarital cohabitation is associated with lower
levels of satisfaction in marriage and a greater potential for divorce.

At a conference last month, Stanley and his colleagues presented the latest
findings of a five-year study being sponsored by the National Institute of
Child Health and Human Development. He estimates that between 60 and 70
percent of couples today will live together before marriage, and that for
two-thirds of them, cohabitation is something that they slid into or “just
sort of happened.”

And a study Stanley co-authored in February found that of the 1,050 married
people surveyed, almost 19 percent of those who lived together before
getting engaged had at some point suggested divorce, compared with 10
percent for those who waited until marriage to live together.

Those findings mimic the reports from the mid-1990s that first peaked
Stanley’s interest, showing that men who cohabitated before marriage were,
on average, less dedicated to their relationships than those who didn’t.

“It was one of those kind of findings that I wouldn’t have suspected,”
Stanley, 53, recalls. But he immediately had a theory: “The basic idea was,
‘Okay, there’s a group of males there that married someone they wouldn’t
have married if they hadn’t moved in with them.’ ”

The problem is one of inertia, he says. Living together, mingling finances
and completely intertwining your lives makes it harder to break up than if
you’d stayed at separate addresses. “Some people get trapped by that and
they end up hanging around,” he explains. Even if a couple doesn’t
eventually marry, they might prolong the relationship and “miss other
opportunities with a person who’s a better fit.”

But not all cohabitations are created equal. Stanley’s studies have shown
there’s almost no difference in marital satisfaction between couples who
moved in together after they got engaged and those who did it after their
wedding day. He attributes this to varying levels of deliberateness; engaged
and married couples have committed to a future together, while some couples
who cohabit before engagement are ambiguous about where their relationship
is headed.

It’s often the case that one partner sees cohabitation as a step toward
marriage, Stanley says, while the other is thinking more loosely about the
arrangement. Stanley says couples can slide into living together and then
sometimes slide further into having kids and getting married without openly
discussing the transitions and decision-making about them.

“Commitment is fundamentally about making a decision . . . making the choice
to give up other choices,” says Stanley, who also writes a blog called
Sliding vs Deciding. “It can’t be a commitment if it’s not a decision. But
people, on average, don’t seem to be talking about what [cohabitation] means
for them as a couple. They just find themselves doing it.”

It’s not that the act of cohabitation weakens relationships, however.
Couples who live together after making thoughtful decisions to commit their
lives to one another have no higher risk for marital dissatisfaction, his
research has found. It’s less stable couples who decide to move in together
that might see trouble down the road — especially if a child becomes
involved or they marry because of societal pressure. “Cohabitation may not
be making some relationships more risky,” Stanley says. “What it may be
doing is making some risky relationships more likely to continue.”

Of course, many couples who cohabitate before getting engaged or tying the
knot end up in very happy, successful marriages, the psychologist concedes.

But for Stanley, the bottom line is that people should “not assume that
living together is such a harmless, easy thing to do that won’t affect your
life. . . . At the very least you should talk about it, clarify things with
your partner.”

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