This is a common and important question. Cohabitation—living together without the commitment of marriage—is on the rise. And it's a good idea to examine your fears and ask questions before making this important step. Although increasing numbers of individuals report less social stigma about cohabitation, many of the people who I've counseled ask these key questions: Will living together lead to marriage and will it increase my risk of divorce?
Unsurprisingly, there aren't any easy answers to these questions. But one things for certain, researchers have found that before you decide to live with someone, it is incredibly important that you and your partner are on the same page. Dr. John Curtis, author of Happily Unmarried and a marriage and family counselor, spoke about the importance of couples discussing expectations before moving in together. On a recent Huffington Post Live segment "Why Buy the Cow When the Milk is Free?" he highlighted the "expectation gap" as a critical consideration before moving in with your partner. He states that the fundamental difference between men and woman according to a recent Rand Study is that many women view living together as a step towards marriage while many men see it as a test drive.
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What are your motivations for living together? Based on discussing this question, you may find out that your partner is simply trying to save money by sharing the rent. If you want to develop a deeper bond and most significantly, you see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, these differing expectations may be a problem.
If you are looking to get married and your partner is not, this could create an "expectation gap." In my experience, many people say they are open to marriage when they move in together. However, if they have not sealed the deal with an engagement, there's plenty of room to back out. And there's plenty of time to decide you are not the one he/she wants to marry.
A common phenomenon, according to Meg Jay, author of "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter," is the concept of, "sliding not deciding" to move in together. What this means is that a couple may bypass discussions about why they're cohabitating and they gradually start spending more time sleeping over—eventually moving in together. It's crucial to sit down with your partner and clarify your expectations about the future if you want to enhance your chances of remaining in a committed relationship.
Here are what the statistics have to say:
- Over 50 percent of couples who cohabitate before marriage are broken up within five years (Cherlin, 2009).
- Over 75 percent of children born to couples who are not married no longer live with both parents by the age of fifteen (Cherlin, 2009).
- Couples who live together before marriage are about as likely to have marriages that last fifteen years as couples who haven't lived together (Stobbe, 2012).
It is true that you could marry your partner without living together first and still get a divorce. And it is also true that you could live together, get married and be absolutely happy for the rest of your lives and never contemplate a breakup. However, recent research from the Rand Corporation demonstrates that couples who cohabitate are substantially less certain about the permanence of their relationships than those who are married. They report lower levels of complete commitment to their partner, especially if they are males. Results from this study also show that cohabiting relationships are associated with lower levels of reported closeness, love and satisfaction in the intimacy dimension.
Research about whether living together before marriage increases your risk for divorce is less definitive. It's unclear if it actually increases the risk. If individuals who cohabitate are at a slightly higher risk for divorce, it may not be because they lived together before marriage. It could speak more to their mindset about commitment in general. Is it just greater acceptance of divorce in general? Is it that people who live together have a weaker commitment to the institution of marriage? It depends on who you ask.
Being aware of the issues that contribute to divorce proneness is the first step to avoiding this fate. It's good to discuss expectations fairly early on in a relationship. Maintain an ongoing conversation with your partner to make sure you both have the same mindset about the future of your relationship.
While I don't recommend giving your partner an ultimatum of "propose or I'm out," make the discussion of marriage an ongoing dialog if that is your goal. Be vulnerable with your partner and expose your fears. Try to tell him/her when you're feeling anxious, sad, or fearful. If they are the right mate for you, they'll react with kindness and understanding. Ask them to tell you their concerns, aside from the financial ones. Examine your reasons for moving in together and realize there's no race to the finish line. If your fundamental problem is the fear that your relationship won't last, this concern needs to be worked on before you consider moving in together.
The following are some key questions and topics to discuss with your partner before cohabitating:
- What are your motivations for living together?
- Discuss whether not you see cohabitating as a step toward marriage and what it means to both of you.
- What are your expectations regarding living together? This includes your values regarding fidelity, marriage, having children, etc.
- What will you do if it doesn't work out?
- What are your goals in five or ten years in terms of your relationship, finances, careers, living arrangement, etc.?
While there aren't any easy answers to the question of whether couples should cohabitate, being aware of the risks involved may help you to make a more informed decision. Recognize that while life doesn't give you any guarantees, open communication and awareness of the issues which confront your relationship will give you the greatest chance of success.
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