Busted Halo
feature: sex & relationships
September 5th, 2012

A Cohabitation Conversation

Examining the realities of living together before marriage


Question: My apartment lease is about to expire and my girlfriend and I are talking about moving in together. How do we know if it’s the right time in our relationship to start living together?
Answer: This is a question that comes up frequently in many different forms when a life transition triggers a discussion about living together. There are actually two parts to this question: should we live together, and if so when is the right timing? Living together likely seems like a good idea. You can spend more time together as a couple and split expenses. You already spend several nights a week at each other’s house, so is it really such a big move?

Before we examine the religious or spiritual implications of living together, let’s look at the research. Believe it or not, couples who live together prior to getting married report higher divorce rates and lower dedication to the relationship (see this summary of studies for more details). Something about living together makes it harder to remain married. And why is dedication important to the relationship? Dedication means more than just committing to marriage, it means working out the harder issues, staying up late to talk when it’s needed, saying you’re sorry first or when you feel the other person should be the one apologizing, and putting your relationship first. Dedication is what prevents partners from cheating. Basically, dedication keeps your relationship together and the bond between you secure.

Why do couples who live together divorce more and report lower levels of dedication? Researchers from the University of Denver have introduced the concept of “sliding versus deciding.” Couples who live together tend to “slide” into the decision through the pressures of life circumstances, like the end of a lease coming up, rather than explicitly discussing what it means for the relationship. A pending life transition should not take the place of talking openly about expectations and areas where you disagree and then deciding if a higher level of commitment is right for you both.

A pending life transition should not take the place of talking openly about expectations and areas where you disagree and then deciding if a higher level of commitment is right for you both.

So, life transitions may not be the best way to decide to live together. But what if we are committed to each other and we’ve talked about all of our issues, and we’re still ready to make the move? Let’s go back to the research. Couples who live together get divorced more frequently. If you think that can’t possibly be your relationship, then know that couples who live together, get married and don’t get divorced report lower levels of marital satisfaction. They end up less “happily married.” There is something about living together that actually harms the relationship. Maybe taking a “trial run” undermines how close and secure you end up feeling. All we know is, living together is not good for marriage.

Ok, you say, maybe we know we don’t want to get married, or marriage is not important to either of us. Then I would start by pointing you toward the realities of living together and not being committed to staying together. Simply put, you could still break up at any time, and the difficulty of walking away from the relationship increases when breaking up means you loose your home. Cohabitation creates inertia — leading you to stay when you may have left if you were not living together. You are creating potentially much more heartache for both of you, while at the same time adding undo pressure to the relationship.

“Love is total commitment”

Even if the research doesn’t have the answer “why,” our Church offers some options. As Catholics, we believe a relationship between two people that becomes close enough to live together is meant to stay together for life, to protect both partners and any potential children from the pain and suffering of a breakup. We believe that this relationship is called marriage, and marriage is a sacred gift. Why? Because a good marriage is both rare and beautiful and is only strengthened through commitment and dedication to each other. When two people find each other and agree to be together for life, not just for a night or a lease term, it’s a blessing that fosters deep intimacy and security — conditions for love to flourish. We believe that the truth about love is one of the teachings Jesus was trying to show us. Love is not simply feeling pleasure, or having deep emotions towards another person, or wanting to be together; love is committing to what’s best for the other person and the relationship. Even when “what’s best” might mean sacrifice for us. In this case, what is “best” for both of you and the relationship means waiting until your commitment is permanent before living together.

It’s not by chance that the Bible has multiple references to a bride and groom as a way to imagine God’s love for us. Christ did not come to give us rules or restrictions, but rather to show us the truth about love. Love is total commitment, freely given. It’s hard to ignore that the very thing that is emotionally healthy for you as an individual, and for the couple, is the very thing the Church teaches.

I know that these words are not what you are going to hear from the television or the movies, or magazines or your friends. Or even maybe your own parents. But I hope you can hear the message of love, and my hope and prayers are that you may find, build, and grow a relationship that brings you happiness, holiness, and peace.

Do you have a relationship question for Michele? E-mail us!

The Author : Michele Fleming
Michele Fleming, M.A., is a counselor, national speaker, and writer on Christian relationships for CatholicSingles.com. Michele has a master's in clinical psychology with an emphasis in the integration of Christian theology. She is currently completing her Ph.D. and her research is focused on dating and relationships. She is a member of the Christian Association for the Psychological Sciences and the American Psychological Association. Her website is www.michelefleming.org.
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  • Alycia

    Cohabitation also leads many into using contraceptives (because who wants to get pregnant with someone you are not fully committed to?), which is another HUGE issue in the church. I have heard the statistic being as high as 90% of Catholic couples in the church as using contraceptives. In turn, many of these who do go to church (if they haven’t already left because of the Church’s “harsh” rules), go up to Communion, thus adding mortal sin upon mortal sin. We definitely have major issues in the Church, in more areas than one.

  • James

    Mark, my parish priest’s recommendation to couples who have decided to live together it that one of them move out, and that they not live together. Your question is something like asking, “Adultery is wrong, but what can you say to couples who have decided to commit adultery? What should they do to make it work?”

  • Mark

    So what can you say to couples who have decided to live together? What can they do to work a little harder to insure that their decision to marry will last forever?

  • Natalie

    I can’t really gather much from the survey cited in this article, but the Christian Science Monitor cites a different survey showing no greater divorce risk.

    As to “sliding vs deciding”, sure, the end of a lease could lead to a slide into cohabitation, but a military career could also lead to a slide into marriage. I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for this next one, but I’ve also noticed quite a bit of young, hormonal Christian couples sliding into marriage very early on in their relationship (typically less than 1 year in) because their sexual desires conflict with Biblical teachings. And who’s to say that marriage doesn’t create inertia as well? How many of us know unhappily married couples staying together because of the children?

    The “sliding vs deciding” and “inertia” points Fleming raises are both very important considerations for anybody in a relationship, but her using them to argue against cohabitation just doesn’t sit right with me. I know a lot of unhappily married couples who never cohabitated and perhaps could have stood to do so decades ago.

  • Kathy

    This is a very good article. While I do agree that premarital cohabitation is not a good idea, it doesn’t always end up in divorce or unhappy marriages. My husband and I lived together for 6 years while we were in college. We were both from families of divorce and were basically afraid of marriage, afraid of the statistics that children of divorce have a higher rate of divorce. My mother encouraged our living together, my mother- in- law was neutral about it! During those years of cohabitation we learned more about our Catholic faith we shared and grew stronger in that faith ( understanding what the Church taught and why it taught it), we married, and have been very happily married for 23 years (with 4 children). While our situation was a bit different from the norm, I would NOT encourage couples to live together. I would encourage them to make their faith a VERY important part of their relationship from the very beginning, learning and growing together, and paying close attention to what the Church teaches.

  • Sunni

    Great article! I really think it’s one of the best descriptions of what love is that I’ve seen. Thank you.

  • annika

    very good article! thank you. all young people need to read this

  • Evelyn

    Thank you for a well though out response. My boyfriend and I both have the same values and agree that living together before marriage isn’t right. It’s hard sometimes, especially when most of our acquantinces are ‘shacking up,’ but I know waiting will be worth it. :)

  • Billl

    Thanks for the great answer, Michele. You examined the question in a way that wasn’t condescending but also didn’t shy away from the clear reality that premarital cohabitation is a bad idea.

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