In Relationships, Be Deliberate

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

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

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.

The data show that couples who slid through their relationship transitions ultimately had poorer marital quality than those who made intentional decisions about major milestones. How couples make choices matters. For example, right after moving in with their partners, individuals were asked how they started cohabiting. On a five-point scale, they indicated whether they slid into the move or made a decision about it together. Those who rated their move as a decision had happier marriages later on. Those who moved in together without a mutual commitment to marriage first had lower marriage quality down the line. Twenty-eight percent of people who slid into cohabitation were in happy marriages while 42 percent of those who decided to live together were in high-quality marriages.

Another example is hooking up and its subsequent slide into a relationship. One-third of those who married said their relationship with their eventual spouse began as a hookup, and they, too, were unhappier in their marriages later on.

Why do people who decide do better than those who slide through their milestones? The data hint at two possibilities. The first is that those who decide might just be more thoughtful people. For individuals, deciding means thinking carefully about what they want in a romantic partner, in their sexual life, from living together, and in having children—and keeping these desires in mind as they navigate relationships. For couples, deciding means taking the time to communicate and to make mutual decisions when something important is at stake. Couples who decide rather than slide also have more practice working together and are likely better at proactively talking through important life issues, a skill that could help them build a happy marriage.

When partners slide, they tend to be less thoughtful, which could have negative consequences, like marrying a poor match. For example, couples who slide into cohabitation without formal plans to get married could continue on into marriages that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The problem with cohabitation is inertia. It is much harder for couples to put an end to their relationship when they live together. They buy furniture together, get used to the routine of living together, and split bills and rent. Research shows that these constraints could prevent them from breaking up.

Deciding rather than sliding revolves around commitment—not just to each other, but to the decision itself. Making a decision, research shows, sets individuals up for better follow-through. Further, most cultures have strong and public relationship rituals that help the couple make the decision and see it through. The engagement is the perfect example. There is a societal script for getting engaged that makes it less likely for couples to slide into an engagement. As two people approach an engagement, each partner has (hopefully) determined that he or she wants to spend his or her life with the other, there is usually an expensive ring involved, and the engagement announcement tells the world that the couple plans on getting married. The very act of making the decision to get engaged leads to all of the preparations for the marriage and likely to a stronger commitment to it.