- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

When I teach classes to teens or 20-somethings, I often ask, “When you are thinking about marrying someone, what is the best way to see if you are compatible?” Whether they are religious or not, conservative or not, inevitably the answer is, “You should move in together.”

Not long ago, I heard a presentation by an older, conservative, religious male researcher and a younger, liberal, feminist researcher on this very topic. You might assume it was a heated debate. Surprisingly, it was quite the opposite. In spite of being opposites in so many ways, when it comes to cohabitation, Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades are on the same page.

“Based on the research, living together is clearly here in a big way and is not going away anytime soon,” said Mr. Stanley, research professor and co-founder of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. “Learning how to live with cohabitation doesn’t necessarily mean you are endorsing it. We all need to understand the implications of living together for couples and for society as a whole.”

The latest statistics indicate that 60 percent to 70 percent of couples live together before marriage.

“At this point, cohabitation is a short-lived relationship stage,” said Ms. Rhoades, senior researcher at the Center for Marital and Family Studies. “Most of these relationships either break up or they marry within two years. The age of first marriage has been rising dramatically, yet people are forming significant relationships long before marriage that ultimately impact the marriage relationship.”

Studies indicate that people who choose to live together tend to already have risk factors for divorce, such as divorced parents, less education, less religious commitment, less favorable attitude about marriage and more favorable attitude about divorce. In fact, based on current numbers, it would be highly unlikely to find a couple living in the same town that didn’t live together before marriage, unless they are religious. Research is showing, however, that even people of faith are going against their values and living together.

When people were asked why they lived together, the most popular answer was to spend more time together. Very few said they were living together to test the relationship. Surprisingly, most of them do believe in the institution of marriage.

“People are just really freaked out about whether marriage will last,” Mr. Stanley said. “They are having trouble with the idea of marriage and if they can make it work. Young adults think that living together is their number one ‘go to’ strategy to improve their odds of being successful in marriage. In a decade of research, there is almost no evidence that living together helps people have a successful marriage. In fact, a couple of studies show that the more people cohabit before marriage, the more you see an erosion of belief that marriage is special, marriage matters and children are worth having in a marriage relationship.”

Research indicates young people don’t understand that once you start living together, it is harder to break up because the constraints of living together increase over time and it gets harder to just get up and leave. Signing a lease together, having a child together, getting a dog these things start to anchor the relationship, which makes it more difficult to break up.

Mr. Stanley and Ms. Rhoades contend that some people only marry the person they are marrying because they lived with them, not because they believe they have found their soul mate.

People who wait to cohabit until they marry or until they are engaged (or are clearly mutually planning marriage) are at lower risk for divorce than those who move in together before that question is settled. In other words, the risk of marital distress is really high for those who haven’t clarified their intention to marry.

At the very least, it appears that living together is not the panacea many seem to believe it is when it comes to securing lasting love. While cohabitation seems to be the avenue of choice for many, based on the research, it may not be your best bet for finding the love of your life.

Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at [email protected]

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