Once upon a time, living with your significant other before getting married was extremely taboo. Nowadays, however, it seems that it's taboo if a couple doesn't live together before walking down the aisle. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, between 1965 and 1974, only 11 percent of women lived with their partner before their first marriage. Between 2010 and 2013, that number rose to 69 percent of women. For many people, shacking up is one way to find out if you and your partner can co-exist in a shared space and have a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Of course, it’s not for everyone, and not every couple who chooses to co-sign on an apartment lease before they co-sign on a marriage license will actually make it to the altar. The question is, why? Patrick Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center, explored the topic through an economic lens in his study.
Meet the Expert
Patrick Ishizuka received his Ph.D. in sociology and social policy from Princeton University in 2016 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center until 2019. He is currently an assistant sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis whose research focuses on work, family, and social inequality.
To understand how cohabitation influences relationships, 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.
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 time frame of these unions is less than two years, with only 40 percent ending in marriage.
Interestingly, Ishizuka’s study went on to show that marriage is increasingly becoming a numbers game, and that “that wealth independently predicts marriage, with couples that own a home and receive interest from financial assets being more likely to marry.” 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.
The study’s results may be a bit depressing, but Ishizuka’s findings do offer one glimmer of hope for those who are a little economically disadvantaged: 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.
“Equality appears to promote stability,” Ishizuka said in a statement. In fact, he continued, it’s what may actually “hold these couples together.”
Is living together before marriage good?
Cohabitation is a great way to test-run a relationship before fully committing to marriage (if that's your end goal). It creates an environment where couples can really get to know each other while learning how they function as a unit that shares both a living space and a life together.
Why is living together before marriage considered taboo?
The concept of living together before marriage was once considered extremely controversial due to implications of religious morality. While it varies by religion, cohabitation itself is not explicitly called out as a sin. However, its susceptibility to premarital sex is what's often frowned upon.
Does living together before marriage lead to divorce?
Premarital cohabitation is considered a factor in the decrease in divorce rates. Living together before marriage enables couples to vet one another's compatibility before walking down the aisle and parting ways if they're not a match. This reduces the chances of separation after.
At what point does cohabitation become a common law marriage?
The requirements for a relationship to be considered a common law marriage vary widely by state, with many states no longer recognizing them at all. Check your state's criteria for eligibility to be sure.
What happens to joint property if cohabitation ends in separation?
Couples that live together before marriage do not have the same protections as spouses in a separation. If joint purchases were made during the relationship, it usually falls on the couple to divide the assets equally. Creating a cohabitation agreement at the start of the relationship can help iron out the details if such a situation were to arise.
National Center for Family and Marriage Research. "Twenty-five Years of Change in Cohabitation in the U.S, 1987 - 2013."
Ishizuka P. The Economic Foundations of Cohabiting Couples' Union Transitions. Demography. 2018 Apr;55(2):535-557. doi:10.1007/s13524-018-0651-1