As a single twenty-something who just signed a 2BR-2BA lease with one of her best friends, the idea of “living together” with a significant other is not something I think about regularly. In fact, I had always figured that sort of living arrangement was, at a minimum, five years off—given the fact that I don’t foresee myself getting married anytime soon.
Still, I like to consider myself a reasonable individual with a decent gauge of common sense. Growing up Catholic, I was always told that you simply don’t live with someone before you’re married (among other things). As I got older and marriage became less of a far distant vision and more of something that would likely occur in the next decade, I began to question how realistic that suggestion really was.
Sensibly speaking, it would seem that you should pilot your living situation before you legally bind yourself to another individual until death do you part. Although the following analogy is usually used in reference to pre-marital sex (rather than pre-marital cohabitation), you wouldn’t buy a car without test-driving it, would you?
Most major decisions in life are made with a lot of forethought, testing, research, and planning. It seems a little counterintuitive, then, to make a major life commitment—arguably the decision that will affect your entire life more dramatically than any other choice you make—on the assumption that it’ll work out.
But this car metaphor feels a little misguided and incomplete. What if the dealership offered to let you have the car indefinitely, no strings attached, and you could decide to buy it at any point. Would you be in any hurry to fork over $40,000 for the car and commit to it? If this car now lives in your garage 24/7 and is available to drive at any time, would you feel any urgency to buy it? Or would you feel like you had more time to continue your indefinite test-drive?
Sidebar: Why do so many of my "love" posts feature automotive metaphors?
I recently stumbled upon some research that very persuasively suggests cohabitation has the opposite of its intended effect. And, I have to be honest here: It has me nervously second-guessing a lot of things within the relationship realm that I considered “reasonable common sense.”
Now, in the sake of full disclosure, I did not read all of the original studies in their entirety. Rather, I read a synthesis of multiple studies that was performed and written by a psychologist who focuses her research and practice on individuals in their 20s.
My perception is based on her interpretation of the research, which, to be fair, is not necessarily logically sound—but I’m too lazy to read all the original studies and her 152-page synthesis was satisfactory enough for me, so consider your source, buckle up, and read on.
To summarize, the studies suggest that living together has the potential to become a sort of “sliding, not deciding” stage where two people see the benefits of cohabitation (easier access to one another, cheaper rent, etc.) without making a serious, conscious commitment to approximating one another’s potential for marriage and following through.
The psychologist explains that, when you’re just living together but not financially intertwined, paying a mortgage, or trying to get pregnant (i.e., some of the biggest stressors early in a marriage), you aren’t experiencing an accurate calculation of what married life with this person would truly be like. Instead, you’re “committing” to something that appears to have an easier exit strategy (e.g., terminating your lease and going your separate ways) with the expectation that marriage will be the natural next step if things work out.
She explains that, statistically speaking, this is not so. As with many things in life, there are unforeseen consequences and collateral that result from the mindset one typically adopts when making the decision to move in with a significant other.
An important call-out to make here is that this “cohabitation effect” is technically a “pre-engagement cohabitation effect.” In other words, if you’ve already publicly declared your intention to marry this person (therefore making the decision that you’ll be with them forever) and THEN you move in together, your marriage is statistically no more likely to falter than that of two people who didn’t live together after getting engaged. Those at risk in these studies were couples who moved in together prior to an engagement.
The logic presented here actually aligned with my own common sense notions. To quote directly, “A life built on ‘Maybe We Will’ simply may not feel as consciously committed as a life built on top of the ‘I Do’ of marriage or ‘We Are’ of engagement.” I can understand the argument here just as clearly as I can see a case for testing living together before marriage.
Psychology posits the reason cohabitation (pre-engagement) can be dangerous is because it seems like a low-risk commitment, when, in reality, it’s actually very limiting. There’s this theory in behavioral economics called “lock-in” she references that postulates once you start investing heavily in a relationship (like moving in together), you’re far less likely to explore other options even if things are going poorly.
The line of thinking is this: “This isn’t going as well as I’d hoped, but maybe once we get married things will fall into place. We’ve already moved in together—it’s too late to start over.”
The good news in all this is that most of these secondhand consequences of living together can be alleviated by discussing on the frontend what the intentions of both parties are. She makes it clear that the research’s primary implications are that cohabitation out of convenience usually ends in settling and resentment, while cohabitation in a conscious, clearly communicated step toward marriage is less likely to implode.
I cannot stress enough that I do not intend to exercise any judgment or subjective bias here—as I stated, I’m single. I’m not considering moving in with someone. I don’t have a staunch opinion on this subject, beyond how my previous perceptions have been altered by the studies and research I’ve recently come across.
I would LOVE to hear your perspective on this if you’re currently living with your significant other or are now married to someone who you moved in with first. Did you enter into cohabitation with the conscious awareness that marriage would come next? Were you trying to pilot the relationship for the long term? Did you just want cheaper rent? Are you still together, or did you break up? I’m truly interested in anecdotal support or rejection of the research presented in this psychologist’s report. Shoot me a message if you’re open to discussing.
And please, don’t leave me any anonymous nasty comments needlessly defending your choices—because as we’ve learned, I’ll track your IP address and sign you up for some undetermined breed of undesirable junk mail.
Thanks for reading.
I'm probably just as confused as you are: my thoughts on love and relationships.