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Should We Move In Before Marriage?

Data from the 1980s and 1990s showed that moving in with a romantic partner before marriage was associated with an increased risk of divorce. But is this true? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt explains.

By
Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #23
The Quick And Dirty

It turns out that living together before marriage isn’t inherently risky. Instead, it’s the content of conversations around moving in together prior to marriage that impact the success of the relationship. 

Welcome to the new and improved Relationship Doctor podcast! I’m Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt and I’m providing advice backed by relationship science to help make your relationships healthier and happier. In today’s episode we will discuss cohabitation, specifically, the consequences of moving in together before marriage.

When I moved to Florida for graduate school, my boyfriend at the time moved across the country with me. In my first semester, I took a course on the communication theories of close relationships. In that class, we were shown data from the 1980s and 1990s, which indicated that moving in with a romantic partner without being married was associated with an increased risk of divorce.

I remember panicking. My boyfriend and I were currently living together and most of my classmates were living with their romantic partners as well. Were we all doomed to heartache?

Since 65% of adults in the United States agree that it’s a good idea to live with a romantic partner before getting married, these findings were surprising. But when a team of researchers probed deeper into the data, they identified a reason for the negative effects of premarital cohabitation. They called this phenomenon “sliding vs. deciding.”  Turns out that living together before marriage isn’t inherently bad. Instead, it’s the content of conversations around moving in together prior to marriage that impacted the success of the relationship. Specifically, people who slide into living together do so primarily out of convenience, whereas people who decide to move in together communicate about the implications of doing so beforehand. To understand these differences, let’s consider two couples.

When a team of researchers probed deeper into the data, they identified a reason for the negative effects of premarital cohabitation. They called this phenomenon “sliding vs. deciding.”  

Our first couple, Kate and Jake, have been dating for about a year. They each have their own apartments, but Kate has found her apartment to be a little small. She already spends all of her time at Jake’s apartment because it is bigger, in a nicer area, and is generally more comfortable. Slowly over time, Kate has moved the majority of her stuff into Jake’s place. The time rolls around for Kate to renew her lease and since  it would be easier to just move the rest of Kate’s stuff over to Jake’s house to save some money on rent, they decide to move in together.

Our second couple, Morgan and Frankie, have also been dating for a similar period of time. They each have their own apartments but spend a considerable amount of time at Morgan’s place. Similar to our first couple, Morgan’s apartment is much nicer and more comfortable than Frankie’s. When the time comes for Frankie to renew their lease, the couple sit down and discuss their future. Yes, they talk about the practical implications of moving in together, like saving on rent. But they also identify that by moving in together, they are moving toward getting engaged. Both Morgan and Frankie would like to get married, and agree that this is a step toward that goal. Morgan is just starting a new job, so they make it clear that getting engaged may not happen for another year, but that they fully intend to move toward marriage in the future.

Our first couple, Kate and Jake, are what we would call sliders. They moved in together for largely practical purposes. If they felt it would have implications for their relationship, that went unacknowledged in their conversation. Morgan and Frankie, however, are deciders because they communicated that moving in together was the next step in the journey of their relationship and set reasonable expectations for when their relationship would move forward. They are both clear on their plans for the future.

Why is this distinction important? Well, while Morgan and Frankie are on the same page about the direction of their relationship and can be confident that their partner feels the same way  about their future plans, Jake and Katie are not. In a few months time, Jake starts to question whether Katie knew that by moving in together they were assessing marital compatibility. For Jake, the move was more than just for practical reasons, while for Katie, it was largely a matter of convenience. Now, doubts start to form and the need to address those doubts looms over every interaction in the relationship.

The bottom line is that nothing in a relationship can overcome the effects of poor communication. Effective and regular communication about the state of the relationship is an important component to a healthy and satisfying partnership.

More recent research has been unable to replicate the negative outcomes from premarital cohabitation alone, which can be attributed to the societal normalization of living together before marriage. However, the difference between sliding and deciding still persists to this day. Recent studies have found that people who decide to live together before getting married report being more dedicated to their partner, being happier in their relationships, and fewer instances of cheating compared to their sliding counterparts. According to the data, the negative impacts of sliding into living together before marriage persist across different age groups, education levels, religious affiliations, household incomes, and more.

The bottom line is that nothing in a relationship can overcome the effects of poor communication. Effective and regular communication about the state of the relationship is an important component to a healthy and satisfying partnership.

So, what kinds of things should you discuss with your partner before moving in together?  Here are some big questions to consider:

  1. Do you both want to get married? If so, is that something you anticipate happening soon, or in the future? How about getting engaged -- do you have a time frame for when that might happen?
  2. If you don’t have kids, ask about whether this would impact your plans for future children. Do you and your partner want children at all? Does the decision you are discussing impact how many children you want, or when you can start the process of having children?
  3. Ask about the financial implications of this decision. Do either of you have debts, and are they significant? Do you want to have a joint account? Who is responsible for what costs in the new household?
  4. Ask about the division of household labor and how to equitably split responsibilities. Are there tasks you would prefer to do or not do? How often would you like to discuss the chore split? Do you want a rotating system of chores and responsibilities or would you prefer to discuss this split every few months?

Let’s say you have found yourself in the same situation as Jake and Kate. You slid into the decision to move in with your partner and you now know that this may have negative impacts on your relationship. You can still have this conversation with your partner. It may be uncomfortable to lay out your expectations, particularly if you fear  they may not feel the same way as you. However, it is important to do. As uncomfortable as that conversation may be, having clear expectations about the future direction of your relationship will likely reduce conflict and increase happiness in the partnership.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.