A Cohabitation Conversation

Examining the realities of living together before marriage

Question: My girlfriend and I are thinking about moving in together. What should we consider?

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.

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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.

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 lose 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 undue pressure to the relationship.

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“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.


(Previously published September 2012)