In Relationships, Be Deliberate

For milestones like moving in together, intent (rather than chronology) determines success.

If two people are dating, living in the same city, spending most nights of the week together, and are moving toward marriage, doesn’t it make sense to just move in together, and save a little money? Most couples say yes. Though traditional wisdom holds that cohabiting is a bad idea—and historically it has indeed been associated with a higher risk of divorce—moving in together before marriage is the norm among couples today.

But before couples sign a lease together, they would do well to ask themselves: Did we slide into the decision to move in together or did we decide to cohabit?

That question matters in terms of the length and quality of subsequent marriage. Traditionalists tend to think cohabiting before marriage is a bad idea, and progressives are more likely to embrace it, but new research says that’s not the best way to approach the question: The important thing is how couples make the leap into a shared life.

A report released today from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia looks at the many factors that predict a high quality marriage. More than one thousand Americans, 18 to 35 years old, who were in a relationship were recruited into the study. Within five years, 418 of those individuals got married. Galena Rhoades (a co-author of this article) and Scott Stanley, both at the University of Denver, looked closely at those who married, probing into their relationship history with their spouse, their relationships with others, and the quality of their marriages.

One of the main findings was about how couples handle relationship milestones, like moving in together. Every relationship goes through milestones, or transitions, that mark how serious the relationship is getting. Going on a first date is one; a first kiss is another. Other milestones might include the “define the relationship” talk—the moment a couple says they are actually a couple—sex, engagement, marriage, and children.

In the past, these milestones tended to follow a straightforward order that began with courtship, passed the milestones of marriage, cohabitation, and sex, and ended with children. The structure and rigidity of courtship meant that couples had less freedom, but also that each milestone was ritualized with most couples following the same script. Men didn’t just propose to women, for instance; they first attained permission from the father of the bride-to-be. Couples moved through these milestones deliberately, in part due to societal expectations and in part because they knew that each step had life-altering consequences.

Now marriage comes at the end of whatever sequence people want to follow. About nine in 10 couples have sex before marriage, half of all women cohabit before marriage, and four in 10 babies are born to unwed moms.

The freedom to choose any relationship sequence has benefits, but it may also come at a cost long-term. Couples today seem less likely to move through major relationship milestones in a deliberate, thoughtful way. Rather, the new data show that they tend to slide through those milestones. Think of the college couple whose relationship began as a random hookup, the couple who moved in together so that they could pay less rent, or the couple who chose to elope on a whim rather than have a formal wedding. These are couples who, often without realizing it, slid through relationship transitions that could have been planned out, discussed, and debated.  

Presented by

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

Galena Rhoades is a research associate professor at the University of Denver.

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