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The “Cohabitate-or-Wait” Debate

Posted: June 26, 2015

It’s common to hear that young couples want to make sure their relationship is strong before they make the commitment of marriage. And while it’s admirable to take the institution of marriage seriously, many of these couples often test their relationship by cohabitating, or moving-in together.

On the surface, this makes sense: It would be great if, before making any major purchase, you had the opportunity to try it first. And this is especially true when there may be something suspect about the car, or house, you’re looking at. Unfortunately, buying into a commitment like a marriage doesn’t work the same way.

Glenn T. Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies for the non-profit organization Focus on the Family. In his book, The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage, Stanton brings forward a number of surprising findings that run counter to what most would expect.

The Rise of Cohabitation in the Western-World

According to Stanton, the number of cohabitating couples in the United States increased from 523,000 in 1970 to over 6.5 million in 2009. He attributes this to how “generations tend to be shaped by what they were denied.” Those who were raised during the Depression went on to value being fiscally conservative; the generations that followed, raised in the strict 1940s and 1950s, valued experimentation and freedom. This led to the liberal, free-love generation of the 1970s. As traditional values were put aside, this began the trend towards cohabitation, assisted by other views, such as how entering into a legal marriage was an “unnecessary — or even stifling — formality.”

But what was the result for these couples who married after cohabitating? Stanton discovered that several studies had the same findings: “people with cohabitating experience who marry have a 50 to 80 per cent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited.”

According to the previous hypothesis, that generations desire what they have been previously denied, the following generations would move towards relational stability and commitment, and the number of cohabiting couples would decrease. However, while individuals today have shown that they do value marriage more than previous generations, they’ve also become worried they won’t be able to sustain a marriage.

Stanton writes: “A new sophisticated report from the Pew Research Centre on the state of marriage in America reports Millennials have ‘the strongest desire to marry’ of any generation alive today… They feel they must get it right. Therefore, cohabiting, they figure, may be the best they can do — and it provides an easy exit if either partner sabotages the relationship.” [emphasis from the original author]

So why is cohabiting so attractive, and why does it show a high statistic of resulting in divorce?

Cohabiting: The Benefits and Detriments

After reading through The Ring Makes All the Difference, we put together a comparison of the perceived benefits and the consistent detriments of cohabitation.

Benefits:

  • Each member is freer to leave when they want than if they were married.

While this makes sense from an individual standpoint, a relationship is built on trust and faith in your partner. By constantly focusing on your needs, you lose not only the chance of a strong relationship, but one of the greatest gifts of longstanding commitment: building standing trust with the person you love and learning to rely on someone else.

  • There are things the couple (or at least a member of the couple) doesn’t have to deal with.

Stanton puts forward that cohabiting reveals there is a difference in how the couples value their relationship. “Marriage involves things the cohabiting couple — or at least one of them — would rather not deal with. This is why cohabitation even exists.”

  • It’s easier to transition into marriage from cohabitation.

Stanton describes this as “sliding vs. deciding.” Some couples will enter into a marriage simply because it’s easier than breaking up, only to divorce after becoming married. Alternatively, choosing to become married means a conscious decision has been made to this commitment, making it purposeful, rather than just convenient.

Detriments:

  • The level of commitment in a cohabiting relationship is ambiguous.

For some, this is a benefit, because the rules of the relationship have room to grow. But ambiguity will not work for someone who is pursuing a long-term relationship that will last to a 50th anniversary. Clearly-defined and agreed-upon rules provide a reference point that the couple can come back to when faced with a disagreement.

  • You learn poor relationship skills.

Because the benefit of cohabiting is the ability to leave easily, couples in this situation rarely approach relational issues seriously — treating what may be a severe, ongoing issue with little more than emotional band-aids. And as numerous studies have shown, it’s not large problems that destroy long-term relationships, but the aggregation of several small issues.

And, as we previously mentioned,

  • Studies show that there’s a 50-80 per cent increase in the chance of divorce in a marriage that follows cohabitation.

In summary, a marriage benefits from commitment at the outset. Trying to test-drive a relationship can lead to poor habits and ambiguous rules. Defining the commitment at the start provides a solid base on which to build a relationship that will last decades, no matter the ups and downs.