Living in sin? Thinking about it? Plenty of people are; the number of cohabiting couples (who live together but aren’t married) has doubled since the 1990s. Some people used to think living together before marriage would ruin a relationship, but it’s unclear if that’s really the case today.
The rise in cohabitation is linked to other changes in family patterns—including some uncomfortable talks with mom and dad about moving in with the significant otherWorking with Cohabitation in Relationship Education and Therapy, Scott M., Rhoades, G.K., Markman, H.J., University of Denver, Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. 2009 April; 8(2): 95–112.. In 2011, the average age at first marriage was about 27 for women and 29 for men—an all-time high in the U.S.. And, in the last 40 years, it’s become much more common for couples to raise kids together without getting marriedWorking with Cohabitation in Relationship Education and Therapy, Scott M., Rhoades, G.K., Markman, H.J., University of Denver, Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. 2009 April; 8(2): 95–112.. In fact, 42 percent of children under 12 have lived with unmarried, cohabiting parents.
Financial security doesn’t really differ between cohabiting and married couples. (Everyone fights over bills.) Among college graduates, cohabiting heterosexual couples are as well off as their married counterparts. (Same-sex cohabiting couples have higher incomes than married adults in general, but there are few studies comparing same-sex cohabitation and marriage.) And it’s hard to know exactly how living together affects a couple’s financial status.
Other socioeconomic factors come into play—for example, people who don’t graduate from college are twice as likely to live together without marrying first. A cohabiting couple’s future may depend on whether they get engaged before sharing a pre-marital bed. A recent study found couples that live together before getting married, but after getting engaged, are just as successful as couples that don’t live together. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that couples who live together before getting engaged say they’re less satisfied in their marriages and are more likely to get divorcedThe Timing of Cohabitation and Engagement: Impact on First and Second Marriages. Stanley, Scott, M., Rhoades, G.K., University of Denver, Journal of Marriage and Family. 2010 August 1; 72(4): 906–918..
And there may be other negative consequences associated with living together before putting a ring on it. (Mo’ laundry, mo’ problems.) Guys may start forgetting about date night by the time they get hitched—research suggests men who live with their significant others before marriage are less dedicated to their partnersWorking with Cohabitation in Relationship Education and Therapy, Scott M., Rhoades, G.K., Markman, H.J., University of Denver, Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. 2009 April; 8(2): 95–112.. Cohabiting can pose problems for gals too: Women who have cohabited with more than one partner may also be at an increased risk for divorce.
There are a lot of reasons to shack up with your love bunny. Motives include spending more time together, testing the waters before marriage, and having someone around to put together that Ikea furnitureCouples’ Reasons for Cohabitation: Associations with Individual Well-Being and Relationship Quality, Scott, M., Rhoades, G.K., Markman, H.J., University of Denver, Journal of Family Issues. 2009 February 1; 30(2): 233–258.. Before signing that lease, consider factors like how long you’ve been together, how you handle (and hopefully resolve!) fights, and who has clothes—or at least a toothbrush—at whose place. Take time to figure out what’s best for each member of the relationship and then either plop back down on the couch or go get those moving boxes.
Problems can arise when cohabiting couples feel obligated to get married. But other factors may be more important to a couple’s success than whether they’ve got his-and-hers towels.
Originally published February 2012. Updated April 2015.