Living Together Before Marriage:
Compatibility Test or Curse?
by Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
Reprinted and edited from
Buyers, Renters, and Freeloaders
Living together before getting married is a common practice in today's world. People cite any number of seemingly practical reasons for doing so. But almost everyone who has studied these couples has come to the same conclusion: Marriages following cohabitation are almost inevitably doomed.
I've seen it happen myself while counseling such couples. And I know why their marriages fail. In almost all cases, the problem in their marriage is that they refuse to make decisions that would benefit both of them simultaneously. In other words, they won't follow the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your partner).
As cohabitors, a couple usually makes their decisions with just enough care for each other to keep their relationship alive. They live like renters, without a commitment to become partners for life. As a result, instead of trying to blend their lives together by making win-win decisions that are mutually beneficial, they tend to make win-lose decisions that violate the Policy of Joint Agreement.
When they marry, each spouse tries to be on the winning end of each decision as often as possible. They fight for control which creates a very abusive relationship. Eventually they stop showing any consideration at all for each other, making completely independent decisions. A couple that may have appeared to be compatible when they first lived together, eventually become incompatible as their independent decisions and lifestyles destroy their love for each other.
Read the letter below and you'll see what I mean.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I was married only four months ago after having lived with my husband, Ed, for five years. Since the wedding he has been acting completely different.
Ed has turned our garage into his domain, complete with carpet, couches, appliances, and everything you would need in the perfect bachelor pad. He constantly has friends over and I am excluded. When he is not spending time in the garage he is on-line or playing interactive computer games with his friends. He rarely comes to bed at the same time as me, and just generally does not seem to be interested in sharing anything with me lately.
I understand that marriage is a huge change, but Ed never acted this way before, why now? He is the one that really pushed getting married. I was very hesitant because of my parents' bad relationship. I even left him at one point three years ago because he was pressuring me so much. We discussed marriage at great length and both finally felt that it was the right time, so I do not understand his recent behavior.
Is this normal?
This letter is one of thousands I've received from people whose marriages crumbled after having lived together prior to marriage. It illustrates in a most vivid way what happens to most of these marriages. Instead of being more thoughtful and accommodating after making the commitment of marriage, these people tend to become more thoughtless and self-centered.
Becky's husband, Ed, would not have dared transform the garage (and himself) before they got married because she would have left him if he had. Before marriage he took her feelings into account because if he had not, their relationship would have ended.
Throughout their relationship, Ed put pressure on Becky to marry him so he could finally do what he pleased without fear of her leaving. He didn't explain that objective to her, of course, but the way he pressured her made her so uncomfortable that she actually left him on one occasion.
Now that Ed is married to Becky, he thinks that she will stay with him in spite of what he does. But Becky won't put up with his independent behavior. Becky will probably divorce him and their's will join the vast majority of broken marriages that follow cohabitation.
My own experience counseling cohabiting couples and research conducted by social scientists both point to the same frightening conclusion -- living together before marriage tends to doom a romantic relationship. Instead of making the relationship more solid, marriage tends to speed up its demise.
The risk of divorce for couples that lived together before marriage is 80 percent higher than the risk of divorce for non-cohabiting couples. In other words, those who live together before marriage are about twice as likely to divorce than those who did not live together. And the risk of divorce is higher than 80 percent if a couple live together fewer than three years prior to marriage (1).
One of the most common reasons couples live together before marrying is to test their compatibility. That sounds like a reasonable strategy to many people. But as it turns out, such a test appears to almost guarantee a divorce if they do marry.
A study that controlled for factors that might have made divorce more likely among those who tend to cohabit (parental divorce, age at marriage, stepchildren, religion, and other factors) showed that even when these effects are accounted for, cohabitation itself still accounts for a higher divorce rate. In other words, regardless of who you are, you are much more likely to divorce if you live together first (2).
Another study echoed that same sentiment. It found that the unconventionality of those who live together does not explain their subsequent struggle when married. There is something about living together first that creates marital problems later. They write: "Despite a widespread public faith in premarital cohabitation as a testing ground for marital incompatibility, research to date indicates that cohabitors' marriages are less satisfactory and more unstable than those of noncohabitors" (3).
The gist of research right up to the present day is that if you live together before marriage, you will be fighting an uphill battle to create a happy and sustainable relationship.
Why Risk It?
The number of unmarried couples living together has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and I expect that it will continue to increase in the decades to come. Usually their rationale is simple: By living together before marriage, we'll know how compatible we are. Presumably, if a couple can get along living in the same apartment before marriage, they will be able to get along with each other after marriage.
That's a tempting argument. After all, a date tends to be artificial. Each person is up for the occasion, and they make a special effort to have a good time together. But marriage is quite different from dating. In marriage, couples are together when they're down, too. Doesn't it make sense for them to live together for a while -- just to see how they react to each other's down times? If they discover that they can't adjust when they live together, they don't have to go through the hassle of a divorce.
In my experience and in the reports I've just cited, the chances of a divorce after living together are huge, much higher than for couples that have not lived together prior to marriage. If living together were a good test of marital compatibility, the research should show opposite results. Couples living together should have stronger marriages. But they don't. They have weaker marriages. So what's going wrong here?
Why Doesn't It Work?
If you are unmarried and living with someone in a romantic relationship, or are contemplating doing so, ask yourself this question: Why did (or would) you choose to live with your partner instead of marrying him or her? Your answer is likely to have something to do with the fact that you (or your partner) were not yet ready to make an exclusive and permanent commitment. You wanted to see if you still felt the same about him or her after you cooked meals together, cleaned the apartment together and slept together. And you probably wanted to see what married life would be like without the commitment of marriage.
Right now, you are testing each other to see if you are compatible. If either of you slips up, the relationship may end. That's because your commitment of living together is a tentative agreement: "As long as you behave yourself and keep me happy, I'll stick around." It's what I call a Renter's agreement.
You assume that your Renters agreement will provide a valid test of how you will feel about each other, and how you will treat each other, when you are married. But that's only a valid assumption if you are willing to continue using your Renter's agreement after marriage. Under that agreement, if the conditions are not right, either of you can leave, marriage or no marriage. And if that's the way you want it, marriage really doesn't change anything. And it certainly doesn't commit you to much.
I assume, though, that marriage would mean something more to you than that. It would be a commitment not to leave each other when things get tough. But it's much more than a commitment not to leave. It's an agreement that you will take care of each other for life, regardless of life's ups and downs. You will stick with each other through thick and thin. In other words, the test is over. You have now made a final decision as to whom your life mate will be, and you commit yourself exclusively and permanently to that person's care, especially when it comes to meeting the intimate needs met in a romantic relationship. Sounds like a Buyer's agreement, doesn't it?
But why should that marriage agreement ruin the relationships of those who have lived together first? What's wrong with a commitment to care for someone? It should make a relationship stronger, not weaker.
Becky's letter gives us the answer to that question. When she and Ed made their wedding vows, he heard her make a commitment to his care for life, regardless of what he did. While they were living together, he knew she had one foot out the door, and he did not want her to leave him. So he treated her with enough kindness to keep her around. But when she made the vow of marriage, he thought he was now free to be thoughtless. He didn't seem to pay much attention to the vow he made to care for her. On the day of their wedding, Ed traded his Renter's agreement in for a Freeloader's agreement. "I'll do whatever I please, regardless of how you feel about it."
Committed for Life
Most people want commitment after marriage. But there is considerable confusion as to what that commitment really means.
Ed's idea of commitment was that Becky wouldn't leave him if he were thoughtless. Her commitment gave him the impression that he could do after marriage what he could not have done before marriage. And he may have gone so far as to assume that he was also committed not to leave her if she were thoughtless. In other words, his marriage vows didn't seem to have anything to do with a commitment to provide Becky care and thoughtfulness in marriage. It was simply a commitment not to leave her.
If care and thoughtfulness are not a commitment in marriage, the commitment not to leave doesn't make much sense. Why commit yourself to stay in an uncaring and thoughtless relationship? This crucial misunderstanding of commitment may fully explain why those who cohabitate before marriage divorce so soon after marriage. They are making a commitment that no one in their right mind would keep.
The real commitment of marriage is not the one Ed thought he and Becky were making to each other. It's not a commitment to stay regardless of how you are treated. It's a commitment to care for each other and be thoughtful regardless of the circumstances you find yourselves in. It means to "love and cherish each other in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health as long as you both shall live." It's not about just sticking around. It's about loving and cherishing, especially under adverse conditions.
Marriage means that each spouse is committed to make a greater effort to care for each other than they were making before marriage -- a greater effort to meet each other's intimate needs and make decisions that benefit each other. But unfortunately, couples who live together don't seem to care for each other after marriage as much as they did before marriage. They assume that they can get away with more. Instead of being motivated to do a better job, they tend to relax with the assumption that their spouse will put up with them, regardless of what they do. They believe that they don't need to do much to keep their spouse around after he or she makes that commitment.
So the commitment of marriage usually has an effect opposite of that which couples who live together hope it will have. Instead of encouraging each spouse to make a greater effort to care, it actually takes away the incentive to care. After all, when you live together, your success in caring for each other is the only thing keeping you together. If that care is taken away, you're history. But as Becky discovered, when care disappears after marriage, her commitment was expected to keep them together.
Is Renting Good Enough?
Not all couples who live together before marriage go through what Becky and Ed experienced. Ed went from being a Renter before marriage to a Freeloader after marriage. But many couples who cohabitate stay Renters after marriage. What happens to them?
Habits are hard to break, and couples who live together before marriage can get into the habit of following their month-to-month rental agreement. When a problem arises, they don't usually consider win-win solutions that work for both of them. Instead, they regularly rely on win-lose solutions that involve sacrifice on the part of at least one partner. "I'll give in this time if it will make you happy."
This strategy can work if problems are few and relatively simple to solve. But as soon as life becomes complicated, the way it eventually gets when children arrive, win-lose strategies create frustration and resentment when sacrifice is required of a spouse. It invariably leads to fights -- who will be the one to sacrifice next? So, with the introduction of complex problems such as raising children, marriages based on a Renter's agreement become very abusive.
When those who live together before marriage finally decide to marry, it's not usually because they are willing to improve the way they have been solving problems. They marry because the arrangement has worked out well enough that they are willing to sign a long-term lease, so to speak. When I have an opportunity to explain to these couples the difference between win-lose solutions that require one of them to sacrifice and win-win solutions that work well for both of them, they are usually unwilling to give up their win-lose solutions. They may say they want win-win solutions at the time they make their wedding vows, but a choice is to be made, they expect to give sacrificially, and receive sacrifice in return. And as I have mentioned before, that usually leads to fights -- who's willing to sacrifice this time?
A host of studies have found that couples who live together before marriage suffer three times the incidence of domestic violence that married couples suffer (4). And my experience working with cases of domestic violence in marriage almost exclusively involves couples who lived together before they were married. So cohabiting not only tends to lead to failed marriages, but it also tends to lead to violence whether or not the couple ever marry.
When the Renter's agreement is in force, demands, disrespect, and anger are the norm. Cohabiting couples don't look for solutions that make both of them happy. They look for solutions that make one person sacrifice for the happiness of the other. And if sacrifice is not forthcoming, punishment is inflicted.
But those who wait until after marriage to live together tend to experience a very low rate of violence and not much arguing. That's because they tend to be Buyers. They negotiate in a safe and enjoyable way, trying to find win-win solutions to their problems. They have not lived together under the terms of the month-to-month rental agreement. So they usually begin their life together with the assumption that they are there to make each other happy permanently, and their willingness and ability to change their habits to accommodate each other usually reflect that commitment. They want to build compatibility, not test it.
Marriage has a very positive effect on couples who date but do not live together, because after they take their vows they tend to upgrade their care for each other. They make an effort to create a compatible lifestyle from day one. But marriage has a very negative effect on those who live together first because they tend to expect their partner to put up with anything they choose to do.
Avoiding marriage altogether does not save cohabiting couples. Instead, it leaves them with an increasingly abusive relationship. They may stay together a little longer when they don't marry, but their relationship usually becomes increasingly violent. Make no mistake -- cohabitation is a curse for marriage, and an extremely dangerous way to be in a romantic relationship.
But the negative effect of having lived together before marriage can be overcome. Couples that cohabitate don't have to be destined to commit violent acts or end their relationship soon after marriage. All they must do to avoid the curse is to avoid the Renter's or Freeloader's agreement, and become Buyers when they marry. And all it takes to be a Buyer is to make every decision with each other's interests in mind. As the Policy of Joint Agreement reads, never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your partner.
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(1) Bennett, Blan, and Bloom, "Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability," American Sociological Review 53 (1988): 127-138.
(2) David Hall and John Zhao, "Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada," Journal of Marriage and the Family (May 1995): 421-427.
(3) Alfred DeMaris and William MacDonald, "Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Instability: A Test of the Unconventionality Hypothesis," Journal of Marriage and the Family (May 1993): 399-407.
(4) Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher. The Case for Marriage. Pp. 150-160, Broadway Books, 2000.