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Is Cohabitation Good for Relationships?

What Would You Say?

You’re in a conversation and someone says, “It doesn’t really matter if you get married. All that matters is that you live together and love each other.” What Would You Say? More people are cohabiting than ever before. In fact, more than 75% of married couples today lived together before they were married. Today, the number of homes with cohabiting couples is 15 times bigger than it was in 1960, and nearly half of kids will spend at least part of their childhood in an unmarried cohabiting home. As a society, we’ve pretty well accepted the idea that “love” is all that is really necessary for a truly healthy relationship, not “a piece of paper” or a wedding ceremony. Not to mention, we often hear, it is financially wise to share expenses and couples should know whether or not they are compatible before getting married. Social scientists have been studying marriage, family, and cohabitation for decades now. What they’ve found tells a much different story: Number One: Cohabitation Creates Less Healthy, Happy Relationships. Professor Scott Stanley from the University of Denver is one of the world’s leading scholars on marital and relational health. In fact, he may have studied cohabitation more closely than any other person on earth. He says that if you want to help your prospects for a life-long happy marriage, the worst thing you can do, at least according to a growing consensus of research, is to move in together first. Living together before marriage raises a couple’s risk of divorce by 50 to 80%. One reason is that cohabiting establishes unhealthy parameters and practices for the relationship, often without the couple realizing it. For example, according to Professor Stanley, cohabitors develop more unhealthy relational problem-solving skills when compared to their non-cohabiting married peers. They also tend to take these poor habits into future relationships. As Professor Stanley explains, you might learn something you don’t like about a partner by living together first, but you might also break up too quickly because you have trained yourself to go in to a relationship with that expectation. New research published in a 2021 journal of sociology supports Professor Stanley’s conclusion. In it, the authors warn that “premarital cohabitation is positively correlated with marital dissolution” and any cost-benefit analysis should take into account “that one of the costs is a moderately higher probability of a future divorce.” Number Two: Cohabitation Leads to Greater Poverty, Infidelity, and Domestic Abuse. People tend to believe that living together before marriage makes good financial sense. After all, moving in means two incomes for one address. But according to both the Center for American Progress and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, cohabiting couples are dramatically more likely to live in poverty than married couples. This is partly due to demographics, but cohabiting couples also do not share money the same way that married couples do. You might say that the “piece of paper,” the marriage certificate, that “doesn’t matter” actually translates into shared green. Also, according to research conducted jointly in the United States and Europe, cohabitors are about twice as likely to be sexually unfaithful when compared to their married peers, even in situations where cohabitors hold the same expectation of sexual fidelity that married couples do. And research has also long demonstrated that cohabitors are significantly more physically and verbally violent with each other, compared to marrieds. In fact, U.S. and Canadian research shows a woman is nine times more likely to be killed by her live-in boyfriend than by her husband. Number Three: Cohabitation Hurts Women More than Men. Studies show consistently that cohabiting women tend to be more committed to the relationship, both before and after marriage, than the man. However, according to Dr. Stanley, “men who premaritally cohabited with their wives, were on average, a good deal less dedicated to their wives even once they were married.” He then adds, “this difference was not observed at all in females.” Marriage comes with a much higher level of relational commitment and clarity, and trains a man for commitment in a way that cohabitation does not. Cohabiting before marriage tends to teach a man to act like a boyfriend, rather than a husband, even after he is married. According to all the research, cohabitation is like putting rocks in your relational backpack. It weighs a relationship down and makes “taking the plunge” of marriage that much harder. Cohabitation only makes the prospects of your most important relationships more likely to end in pain, infidelity, and failure. So next time you’re in a conversation and someone says cohabitation is a smart way to go, remember these three things: Number One: Cohabitation Creates Less Healthy, Happy Relationships. Number Two: Cohabitation Leads to Greater Poverty, Infidelity, and Domestic Abuse. Number Three: Cohabitation Hurts Women More than Men.