Is cohabitation harmful or helpful for future marriages?
In a July 19, 2016 article on Family Studies, the blog of the Institute for Family Studies, Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades evaluate the effects of cohabitation on individuals and on their relationships. According to recent research by the Barna Group, cohabitation has become increasingly more acceptable in our culture. In April 2016, the Barna Group found that of 1097 adult participants, 65% were in favor of premarital cohabitation and only 35% were against it.
Why has cohabitation become more acceptable? And why do people choose to cohabit? According to Barna’s research, of those who support cohabitation, 84% think that cohabitation is a good choice because it provides time for a ‘trial’ period, when the couple can find out whether or not they are truly compatible. Other less-common reasons to cohabit were because it’s convenient (9%) and to save money on rent (5%).
So is cohabitation a good way to ‘test’ a relationship before marriage? Stanley and Rhoades share research on the impact of cohabitation on individuals and on relationships overall. Their findings go against the otherwise positive beliefs surrounding cohabitation.
Within the ‘test’ group, men admitted to feeling more depressed and anxious, and these same men also indicated that they had greater difficulty depending on others after cohabiting with a person. Women also reported feeling more anxious and more afraid of abandonment. Both men and women indicated that they felt less confident in the relationship as a whole.
Stanley and Rhoades explain that couples who cohabit before marriage tend to have a more difficult time ending the (non-marital) relationship than couples who date but do not cohabit before marriage. Cohabitation, in practice, discourages individuals from breaking up with their significant other when they would otherwise leave the situation behind if it not were for sharing a home together.
Non-cohabiting couples, in contrast, are more able to make truly intentional decisions about their relationships and discern where to go next (engagement and marriage, or not). As Stanley and Rhoades explain, cohabiting couples are not required to make these same decisions because they tend to “slide into” progressive stages (like marriage) without being intentional with one another and communicating directly.
Stanley and Rhoades sum up their research this way: “If you are considering whether or not to move in with someone to test the relationship, it’s likely not the wisest thing to do.” Cohabitation, then, does not seem to be the best option for people in serious committed relationships to ‘test’ whether that relationship is marriage-ready. Individuals in cohabiting relationships could end up in marriages that perhaps are not the best fit for them, a difficult situation for everyone involved and detrimental to society, which depends on strong marriages and families.
About the author
Currently studying theology and psychology at Saint Vincent College, Alexandra Lahoud is an intern for the Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth at the USCCB.