Recent University graduate Sterling McNeal lives with his girlfriend. For McNeal and others, cohabitation is more convenient than going back and forth between houses and is part of the natural progression in a relationship.
“She was staying at my place quite a bit so it just made sense – all her stuff was around my place anyway, even before she moved in,” McNeal said.
More than just being an issue of convenience, living together gives couples a sense as to if they are suitable marriage partners, he added.
“I don’t think people can make that decision after just dating and not living with each other. Everything will be fine and great and you can always get out of each other’s faces. Until you live together it’s not really a test marriage,” he said. “If there’s enough of these incompatibilities then you know it’s not right.”
Pamela Smock, associate director of the Institute for Social Research, has done research on the issue of cohabitation and said it is incredibly common in today’s world. The majority of marriages now begin as cohabitations and the majority of young people, including college students, will cohabit at some point, she said.
“Nationally, we know that a slight majority of young people approve of cohabitation,” she said, adding that males approve more than females. “Also, a lot of people kind of fall into ‘living together’ – it’s convenient, it’s cheaper and if you’re already spending a lot of time with someone, it appears a sensible thing to do, although there’s a downside to it, too, like it’s harder to break up.”
One LSA junior asked not to be identified because she felt her parents would disapprove of the idea of her living with her boyfriend, but she said her opinions on living together before marriage have come a full 180 degrees.
“I used to be against living together before marriage but now that I’m living with my boyfriend … it doesn’t seem so bad to me,” she said. “My parents painted it to be such a bad, immoral thing and I don’t feel myself to be immoral. I feel I have very good morals and I don’t think I’m a ‘bad girl’ because I’m living with my boyfriend. I think I’m still the same person with the same morals, but the relationship has progressed enough that I want to find out if I can live with this person, if this is a person I can marry.”
Her parents are paying $400 a month for a place their daughter doesn’t occupy. She started the year in an apartment with a roommate but slowly started moving her clothes, books and toiletries to her boyfriend’s, sleeping there full-time as of fall break. Now she has her own key.
She said benefits of living together include being able to see her boyfriend whenever she wants to and finding out his quirks, things she said “you couldn’t find out if you were visiting once or twice a week.” But she warned living together can also be complicated.
“Living together is a very big commitment and a big step and you might not want to do that unless you think you’re ready for it. It could make or break a relationship in my opinion because there’s just so much that goes into living together,” she said.
LSA junior Rebecca Nichols has been dating her boyfriend for three years but said even convenience isn’t convincing her they should be living together before marriage.
Aside from the risk of breaking up and having to live together or break a lease, Nichols said living with a significant other could impact relationships with friends, making them feel uncomfortable visiting.
“Once you live in an apartment with someone you’re dating I think it tends to close you off,” she said.
And while she said it is a personal decision and she respects those who choose to live together and those who do not, Nichols said another important consideration is how living together could impact the prospect of marriage.
“A lot of times, especially for guys, there’s not really an incentive for them to want to get married, they’re like ‘I already live with you so what’s the point,'” she said.
Nichols added that sometimes she feels it would be easier to live with her boyfriend because she knows him so well but that not living together is for them a moral decision.
“My parents feel the same way I do – they wouldn’t want me to live with him before I get married, but they wish we could just get married so we could live together because it’d just be easier – but they don’t want me to live with him unless we were married.”
Smock, who has researched and analyzed cohabitation, addressed the current controversy surrounding the issue, part of which is focused on the idea of cohabitation affecting the permanence of marriage.
“Some people think if we get used to temporary relationships then it gets easier to end marriages we feel we’ve outgrown. The idea is that as a culture we’re learning these relationships are temporary and if we believe that we can end anything more easily.”
She added that her opinion is that individual perspectives definitely matter with regard to feelings about permanence in relationships.
“I do think that when one goes into a marriage – and it has been shown that people who believe marriage is a permanent thing are less likely to divorce – your attitudes do matter, and it’s up to you and me to think about whether the experience of cohabitation is going to make us believe less in the cohabitation of marriage,” Smock said.
Cohabitation has been a hot topic of debate since the middle of the 1990s, when researchers began tracking cohabitation, whereas before the late 1980s, nobody was even measuring it, Smock said. The census started measuring cohabitation in 1990, she added, as the topic went from being a discussion among social scientists through the academic world and into the public eye.
“It has kind of taken the place in the public mind of the whole debate we had in the ’70s and ’80s about divorce,” she said. “The preoccupation was about divorce and whether divorce is bad for kids, and in the last five to 10 years the pendulum is now focusing more on cohabitation and cohabitation versus marriage.”