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Force of Cohabit: Making or Breaking a Marriage?

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Findings

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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