Over 12 million unmarried Americans are living together in 6 million households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007.” With cohabitation so common, it’s easy to think that living together is as simple as merging each other’s things into one household.
It’s anything but. Below, relationship experts weigh in on whether living together is a good idea and how couples can make that decision wisely.
Is Living Together a Smart Move?
Couples therapists have different opinions on whether living together before marriage is a wise decision. For instance, according to Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage, “living together is putting oneself in a very vulnerable position,” especially if kids are involved.
When there isn’t a clear agreement, she says, “anyone can leave at any point.” However, “when there’s a clear commitment [of marriage], you learn to negotiate the rapids and come out on the other side.”
She also says that “there is significant research that the longer a couple lives together before they marry, the higher the odds of getting divorced.” One of the reasons may be that cohabiting without getting married usually means there’s something preventing you from making that commitment, and “pure living together doesn’t take care of” your issues, she says.
According to Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy, while “moving in together doesn’t solve anything…it might bring to light things that need to be worked on.”
What’s more, he says that cohabiting “is much more complicated than most articles (and the survey studies themselves) imply.” We just don’t have enough information to make a definitive statement one way or the other, he says. Moving in together without being married isn’t necessarily a sign of problematic underlying issues, he maintains.
There also may be other intervening variables at play, he says. For instance, Solley cites research suggesting that American couples who live together and take premarital education courses or see a counselor may not be at a higher risk for divorce.
When thinking about cohabiting, “The question is not whether the order of events will make a difference in a relationship, it’s how you feel about your relationship,” Solley says. Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, agrees, saying, “I don’t think the situation should make the decision.” What should, she says, is “your relationship, how you work as a couple, how you feel about one another and how committed you are to each other.”
So moving in together really “depends on the couple and [the] reasons why you’re living together,” she says. Some couples want to cohabit because of convenience (e.g., one partner’s lease is up), saving money or the desire to see where the relationship is going. According to Orbuch, these reasons are not compelling enough to make the move. “You should not say to yourself I’m going to find out ____ by living together,” she explains.
Some experts do believe that living together can reveal whether you’re compatible. NYC-based couples psychologist Michael Batshaw, LCSW, who believes that it’s generally “more helpful to have lived with somebody” before marriage, says that “Certain things are essentially impossible to know in terms of compatibility if you aren’t spending every day with that person.”
On the other hand, Orbuch says that a wise reason to cohabit is “to strengthen a relationship, not to see if you’re compatible,” though she says that she’s known couples who’ve realized they aren’t compatible after living together.