Expert Q&A: Should you move in with your significant other?

Photo Credit: Joyce Isleta

Getting serious with your significant other? You know each other’s orders at your favorite restaurants, keep a toothbrush at each other’s dorms and even finish each other’s sentences.  It seems to be a match made in heaven. If you and your special someone are already “playing house,” you may be facing a huge new opportunity— the chance to live with each other. Moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend can be an important and scary step in life.  How do you know when the timing is just right?
We sought advice from Christine Gray, Ph.D. a lecturer in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, to help answer this tricky question and further understand romantic cohabitation.   
Longhorn Life: Tell us a little about yourself. As a lecturer, what about the topic of cohabitation most intrigues you?
Gray: My husband and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this past December. We have two children, a son, who is almost 9 years old, and a daughter who is almost 2 1/2 years old.
I earned my master’s degree and Ph.D. from UT’s Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS) Department. After graduating in 2007, I was hired as a lecturer by our HDFS department to teach the introductory Family Relationships course, when needed. This semester, I am teaching a different course, Families in Transition. My students are most curious about whether cohabitation leads to happy marriages or horrible break-ups and so this tends to be my interest too. Luckily, this has also been the interest of many researchers.
LL: What advice would you give students who are considering moving in with their significant other?
Gray: We know that when people make more “investments” in a relationship, which can be time; joint property; money; shared friendships; etc., they become more dependent on the relationship and therefore feel more committed. Moving in together creates momentum in relationship commitment. As a result of moving in together, you may buy a sofa together, adopt a cat and begin to spend more time with each other’s families and friends.
A research group led by Scott Stanley, [Ph.D.] from the University of Denver suggests that this cohabitation momentum can lead to the inertia effect: Couples who would never have gotten married end up marrying because they live together. In other words, the momentum of adding investments and joining their lives together carries them into becoming more committed, eventually leading some couples to marry that probably would not have gotten married if they had lived separately and continued to date. A sizable portion of people who live together report they ended up marrying because it just seemed like the next logical step in their relationship. There is a greater risk involved when an individual’s feelings of personal commitment — that is, the feelings that you want to continue this relationship and be with this particular partner — are outpaced by structural commitment. Structural commitment refers to the things that keep you in the relationship because you would lose too much from leaving, such as irretrievable investments of your time or money; the difficulties of leaving the relationship and finding another partner and the social reactions of friends and family if you were to end the relationship. Partners can feel trapped when these structural factors keep them in the relationship rather than love for their partners. 
These constraints lead people to marriage, but later down the road in marriage, when the going gets rough, these individuals may feel as though they never even made a choice to marry that partner; instead, they just got swept up in the momentum. Luckily, there are some research based recommendations for couples thinking of moving in together that if followed could help couples avoid feeling trapped. Before moving in together, couples should talk about the meaning of cohabitation, their individual commitment levels and the potential constraints that will hold them together even if it were best if their relationship ended. Be slow and deliberate with these decisions and carefully consider what the future may hold. For some, cohabitation is often an ambiguous state; even partners within the same relationship perceive the meaning or reasons for moving in together differently. It is important to discuss these issues openly and up front with your partner before deciding to move in together and if you don’t think you can have that conversation with your partner then you definitely should not move in together. 
LL: Now, there are different types of cohabitation. Could you explain a little about each type?
Gray: Recently, researchers looked at three important reasons for moving in together: spending time together, testing the relationship (trial marriage) and convenience. Testing the relationship was related to several negative relationship qualities such as more negative couple communication, more physical aggression, more depression and anxiety (but only for men), lower relationship adjustment, lower confidence in the relationship and lower dedication commitment. Again, it becomes a slippery slope to use cohabitation as a means for testing the relationship. When you feel confident about the relationship, you do not need to test it. If you are having doubts about the relationship or your partner, testing it by choosing to live with that person is risky because of the inertia connected to moving in together that I explained previously.
LL: Do couples that cohabitate, especially during their college-aged years, traditionally have a high success rate?
Gray: I don’t know of any data that directly address this question, but perhaps surprisingly, the typical cohabiter is between the ages of 25 and 44; whereas, only about 20 percent of cohabiters are 24 years old or younger. Again, I am not sure of the success rate, and think that couples should look to their motivations for moving in together when gauging the chance of their maintaining a satisfying relationship.
LL: What other factors do you feel couples should consider before making the decision to move in together?
Gray: Research shows that couples who have definite plans to marry before they decide to move in together have similar relationship quality as those who marry without living together first; these groups are equally happy in their relationships. However, individuals who move in together prior to getting engaged or having definite plans as a couple to marry, are more likely to have a host of relationships problems, such as poorer communication and lower relationship satisfaction and a higher probability of divorce. Somewhere between 50 percent and 65 percent of recent marriages are now proceeded by cohabitation.
LL: Do you have a personal story, or a friend’s story, that you would like to share with our readers about couples that live together during college?
Gray: Yes… my life-long friend, whom I will call Lisa, and I each began dating our partners, Jim and Jason respectively, during our first year of college. I remember asking Lisa if she thought she could see a long-term future with Jim. I told her that Jason was the kind of guy I thought I could marry someday. Lisa seemed shocked by my response and informed me that Jim was just a fun partner for right now. She could never see herself marrying him or even someone like him. Confused, I asked Lisa why he couldn’t be both, fun and someone she might be able to see herself with in the future.  I also asked why she didn’t think that she wanted to end up with a partner who was fun. Even though marriage seemed very far off in the distance, I was following my parent’s advice, practice makes perfect. I didn’t know it then but the research on marital success describes that having a strong friendship and enjoying mutually agreeable activities is an important part of being compatible partners and contributes to having a strong marriage.
Over the years, as Lisa and I continued to talk about our developing relationships, I began to feel as though she was always telling me about their latest big fight and breakup or about something mean and rude that Jim did that made her feel bad. It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned that rocky courtships that are characterized by a lot of ups, downs, and breakups are connected to more problems, both in dating and marital relationships. Eventually, Jason and I got engaged and Lisa, who told me she wasn’t ready for marriage, decided to move in with Jim. A few years later, Lisa and Jim got married.
Looking back over the last 12 years, I feel as though Lisa has spent the majority of the time telling me about lots of marital problems and in particular, the ways in which Jim sounded selfish and like a jerk. I often wonder if Lisa got swept up in the momentum of the relationship, first becoming sexually involved with Jim, then emotionally attached, moving in together and eventually getting engaged and married because they all seemed like the next steps. I find it ironic that Lisa’s choice of a marriage partner may have been, in part, because she really did not give a lot of thought to whom she was dating at the time. She told me that when she felt ready for marriage, she would go out and begin to date a more suitable marriage partner (and apparently he wasn’t going to be fun to hang out with).
I take great solace in the fact that even though there have been rough patches in my marriage, I come back to the same basic ideas: I really like and respect my partner, Jason; I find him interesting, and I enjoy spending lots of time with him. My advice to college students is that even if you think marriage is a long way off (and it usually is given that the average age of marriage is about 26 years old for women and 27 years old for men), it doesn’t hurt to begin to think about what kind of partner you may want to end up with. At the very least, follow the advice about carefully considering a decision to move in together and discuss the issues with your partner.  Moving in together can mean more than it seems at the time.