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How has living together changed?

Updated: May 5, 2012 8:04AM

D o you think couples should live together before tying the knot? Living together used to be considered the sign of an unstable relationship and a predictor of a divorce (assuming the couple even made it from roommates to spouses). Now, recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests otherwise.

According to the research, individuals who lived together before their wedding were just as likely to be married for 15 years as couples who didn’t before tying the knot. (If 15 years doesn’t sound like a long time, keep in mind that the CDC research also found that almost half of marriages break up by the 20-year mark, regardless of a couple’s cohabitation status prior to the wedding.)

So what has changed in the cultural landscape to cause cohabitation to be the norm for many couples?

For one thing, couples are now postponing marriage more than any generation before them. While almost 60 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 were married in 1960, only 20 percent of today’s young adults are married. Yet just because they are delaying marriage doesn’t mean they want to delay commitment or intimacy. And, unlike previous generations, today’s couples aren’t judged or ostracized for cohabitating before marriage. Decades ago, a woman might hear “No one wants to buy the cow if they can have the milk for free,” but today’s woman has the freedom and the power to configure her own and make her own sexual decisions.

Along with that freedom, many women have made education and career a priority, and that in turn also delays marriage in favor of cohabitation. According to the CDC, individuals with bachelor degrees are most likely to delay marriage, and this is true for women as well as men. And, although they delay marriage longer than their counterparts without a bachelor’s degree, they are also more likely to stay married for at least 20 years.

Hence, while some critics might take issue with cohabitation, the truth is that it no longer is being used as a stopgap for couples who fear commitment. Instead, it is now a way for couples to live together and enjoy intimacy while they work on their career goals and save money for the future, whether it entails a big destination wedding or a new house. Best of all, it gives young couples time to mature and find themselves, meaning that they will be happier, more confident and more able to make smart relationship decisions.

The CDC research did find that couples who lived together before they were engaged were less likely to have marriages that made it to the 10 or 15 year mark. However, this probably is due to the fact that these couples were not as ready for long-term commitment as their engaged peers. Instead, they likely moved in out of convenience or out of a desire to move things to the next level without having to commit to a marriage.

In fact, a recent study from Cornell University found that two-thirds of cohabitating couples report that they fear divorce and the financial, legal and emotional ramifications of a failed marriage. Fears such as these might prevent couples from tying the knot, particularly for younger generations who might have experienced the pain of divorce firsthand within their own childhood homes.

So is living together before marriage a good idea? It can be, provided that you are clear on your relationship goals and that you are engaged before you do so. If you move in together for reasons other than long-term commitment (such as for fun, convenience, financial reasons, etc.), that’s fine, but be aware that your chance for a long-term marriage in the future could decrease. However, as long as both partners are in agreement of what the future holds and are happy with the level of commitment in their relationship, cohabitation can now be a stage on the road to marital bliss.

Dr. Berman is the star of “In The Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” on OWN and director of

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