Breakups Are Like Divorce For Couples Who Live Together

Couple in front of house
Love, Heartbreak

Breaking up isn't necessarily easier for unmarried cohabiting couples.

Cohabiting is often thought of as a test of sorts: a chance to see if a relationship will work long-term before deciding to walk down the aisle. But even if a couple chooses not to take the plunge, entering Splitsville isn't any easier. Cohabiting breakups, couples find, aren't all that different legally and emotionally, from divorce.

"It still felt like it was a divorce," Daniel Emerson told USA Today after ending his five-year cohabiting relationship.

There are 7.5 million Americans living together without having married, and more than 60 percent of couples who eventually say "I do" live together first. For years, men and women assumed cohabiting was the hassle-free way to go, always having the option to end things without a messy divorce. Not so, said psychologist Janet Laubgross. Number of Cohabiting Couples Soars by Two Thirds Under Labour

"They have to do everything they'd have to do in a divorce, except maybe not legally, to separate their lives," she said. "They've built a life together. They have to divide friends. They've got to divide property. There are a lot of strong emotions—anger, bitterness, resentment. It's very similar to divorce."

Along with the emotional aspect of the breakup, psychologist Kristen Wynns agreed there's still a legal process to consider, especially if the couple has made larger purchases together.

"It's not just as easy as walking away," she said. "What if both have their names on the deed to the house? It's not as simple as walk away and start a new relationship." Can Cohabitation Be Too Close For Comfort?

To avoid the messy financial complications, there's been an increase in cohabitation agreements. But some think that one of the great benefits—yes, benefits—of actually going through the divorce process is the support system. Usually, friends and family who formally came together to witness the union will formally come together to help a person through divorce, and there's also a trained legal team who will make sure that person's voice is heard. Cohabiting couples miss out on that.

"In some ways, having that legal support is like a support system and gives you an outlet," Laubgross said. "It's somebody to hear your story, to support your point of view. You have a lawyer—somebody to say, 'This is real. This is significant. This is a big deal.' If you're just 'cohabiting,' we don't have that extra piece."

Breaking up is hard to do, no matter what the circumstances.