What Living Together Before Marriage Really Means For Your Relationship

It's less about co-exisiting and more about your finances

Updated 07/10/18
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Once upon a time, living with your significant other before getting married was extremely taboo. Nowadays, however, if a friend tells me she’s not planning to move in with her guy or gal until after they walk down the aisle, I find myself laughing nervously and asking, as tactfully as possible, what the hell she’s thinking.

According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, the number of women between the ages of 19-44 who lived with a partner before their first marriage increased by 82 percent between 1987 and 2010. For many people, shacking up is one way to find out if you and your partner can co-exist in a shared space in order to make your relationship last a lifetime.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone who chooses to co-sign on an apartment lease before they co-sign on a marriage license actually make it. The question is, why? Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center, explored the topic through an economic lens in a study published earlier this year.

When you consider all the benefits associated with marriage, it’s not unreasonable to think cohabitation might have similar perks—after all, the biggest tangible difference between marriage and cohabitation is a sheet of paper. But, Ishizuka writes, according to past research, the relationships of couples who live together before marriage are generally characterized by “relatively short durations and high levels of instability.” Studies have shown that the average timeframe of these unions is less than two years, with only 40 percent ending in marriage.

To understand how cohabitation is unique in the way it influences the connections between the relationship, money, and work, Ishizuka looked at data gathered from thousands of households between the years 1996-2013. Among his sample, slightly more than half of couples who lived together and experienced some kind of relationship transition ended up breaking it off: 1,121 couples dissolved, while 1,104 went on to get married. In fact, the odds of moving on to marriage declined by 28 percent between 1996 to 2008.

Interestingly, Ishizuka’s study went on to show that marriage is increasingly becoming a numbers game: His analysis showed “that wealth independently predicts marriage, with couples that own a home and receive interest from financial assets being more likely to marry,” he writes. In other words, the more money you make, the more likely you are to get married, especially if you and your partner make about the same. Alternatively, couples who aren’t as well off are more likely to separate.

As someone who shares a home with her longtime boyfriend and writes for a living—i.e., I’m definitely not doing this to make a ton of money—the study’s results are a bit depressing. But Ishizuka’s findings do offer one glimmer of hope for those of us who are a little economically disadvantaged but still want to marry our equally disadvantaged partners: Cohabiters tend to have more egalitarian views about economic gender roles than married couples. He puts to rest that tired theory that couples in which the woman earns more than her male partner—also known as the “male breadwinner perspective”—are more likely to break up before marriage because of the man’s fragile ego.

“Equality appears to promote stability,” Ishizuka said in a statement. In fact, he continued, it’s what may actually “hold these couples together.”

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