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Thinking about living together?

Should We Live Together?Are you sliding or deciding?

“Shacking up,” “living in sin,” or “cohabitating”….regardless of how you phrase it, living together before marriage has become commonplace in today’s culture. In fact, there are some who would argue that living together is a ‘must do’ before walking down the aisle. A U.S. Census study released in September 2010 shows that cohabitation jumped 13 percent in one year with the number of opposite-sex cohabiting couples rising from 6.7 million in 2009 to an all-time high of 7.5 million in 2010. So, why are more and more couples living together?

An ongoing five-year study conducted by Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, follows 1,294 unmarried Americans (ages 18-34) via questionnaires completed two to three times a year. More than two-thirds of the participants are in a serious dating relationship and 32 percent live together. The study shows that couples often have different views of why they are living together – each with very different results.

“People who are engaged think of living together as the next step before they get married, but for many couples, it’s [living together] part of the dating relationship --- pretty serious, but still well shy of the marriage part,” says Stanley. Of the 32 percent living together, 66 percent moved in before making plans to marry; 23 percent planned to marry but weren’t engaged, and 11 percent moved in together after they got engaged. The more religious are less likely to live together before marriage; in the study, 49 percent of the dating couples and 30 percent of cohabitating couples agree that “my religious beliefs suggest that it is wrong for people to live together without being married.” And the study shows couples who live together before marriage are more likely to split up after marriage.

According to Stanley, trouble seems to plague couples who “slide” into living together without much discussion as to the future of their relationship. “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 living together means for them as a couple. They just find themselves doing it.”

In fact, the study found that most couples didn’t consciously decide to live together; two thirds of cohabiting couples said they either “slid into it” or “talked about it, but then it just sort of happened.” Just one-third talked about it and made a thoughtful and educated decision to live together.

The successful exceptions lie in the circumstances surrounding the reasons why a couple has chosen to live together. Stanley’s studies have shown there’s almost no difference in marital satisfaction between couples who move in together after they get engaged, than those who waited until after their wedding day. Stanley chalks it up to the different levels of deliberateness; engaged and married couples have committed to a future together, while couples who live together before engagement are ambiguous about where their relationship is headed.

Also telling is the reflection of the economy. “[In the 2010 census] the percentage of couples in which both partners were employed is down significantly,” says Census family demographer Rose Kreider. “That suggests maybe couples moved in together due to lack of employment for one partner.”

Unfortunately, these are the couples that typically find themselves at a much higher risk of divorce should they marry. “The problem then becomes one of inertia,” says Stanley. Once a couple moves in together, their finances get mingled and it becomes more and more difficult for a couple to break up. It’s because of this that a lot of people marry – not because they’ve put a lot of thought into it, but because it’s easier than putting in the effort to separate. “Some people get trapped by all of it 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.”

So before you hand over the keys to the kingdom, ask yourself:

  1. Why are you moving in together? Is it a reason of convenience? Does one of you need a place to live or perhaps you’ve lost your job and have taken a financial hit? If this is the case, you may want to reconsider or at least further discuss your decision with your partner. Making the choice to live together should not be made on the fly because of circumstances. It should be made after a number of thoughtful conversations where all expectations are expressed so that the best decision can be made for each partner in the relationship.
  2. Where do you want the relationship to go? Perhaps you expect the ‘living together’ phase to eventually move into marriage; however, have you made this expectation clear to your partner? Before you make the move, make sure you have an open and honest discussion.
  3. Do you have a plan as a couple? Are you already engaged or have a defined timeline to become engaged? Research shows that if a plan is in place (in that you are already engaged) to move from living together to married, the relationship has a much greater chance of being successful for the long-term.

The reasons couples live together may vary, and their futures together may be just as varied. But it is important for couples to consider why they are cohabitating and whether or not the possible result fits into their long-term goals for a relationship.