Commitment--Or Lack Thereof: The trouble with shacking up

“No. Not just no, Heck No!”


Wise Readers, that’s what you felt about a Pete/Tina shack-up, per the recent Folk Wisdom inquiry. Through it, 41 readers anonymously submitted advice about a real couple in their mid-20’s with three years of dating and a desire to move in. But whereas Tina saw cohabiting as Engagement Lite, Pete viewed it more like a car lot—where test driving now can prevent owning a lemon later.


Seventy-five percent of men and 85% of women ages 19-66 (average and modal age 40) envisioned, not a successful test-drive, but a train wreck in the making. The top reason? Pete’s lack of commitment and the couple’s lack of cohesive goals, values and purpose related to that.


Which goes to show that you are Wise Readers, indeed. It takes a lot of commitment to make it for the long haul; apologies to the Beatles and most of the Western World, but love is *not* all you need. As one astute respondent observed, “Testing the waters is a foolish reason to cohabit. The success of a marriage hinges on one idea: Trust. Trust is established when you make a vow to be faithful forever…” Quipped another, “Pete’s reason is odd: Would he want to have a baby to decide if he would make a great father?”


Excellent points. And yet, in our survey, even the majority who advised against a Pete/Tina move-in tended to approve cohabitation generally: “My personal folk wisdom is that living together is a good step before taking the plunge, but Pete’s serious doubts lead me to think it would be a bad idea in this case [emphasis added].”


Which brings us to a deeper question: Is cohabitation helpful in general—for most people on the path to choosing a mate? American behavior and speech Just Say Yes. Gallup  recently demonstrated that 62% of 20-somethings believe living together is exactly what Pete hopes it will be: a valid test-drive to minimize divorce risk and enhance later wedded bliss. And it’s a belief many act on; US Census data show that the rate of cohabitation increased over 10x between 1960 and 2000.


But without firm marriage plans at move-in, science flatly disagrees—a fact made more compelling by the liberal bent of many social scientists. Out of 27 scientific sources reviewed for this column, ranging from the 1970’s to now, precisely zero back up today’s cultural support for cohabitation as insurance against divorce and misery. Zero. Although a very few studies show no harm in cohabiting, most find that living together is associated with less—never more—happiness in marriage. And in many studies, the risk of divorce is higher—never lower—following a live-in.


At first, science seems to defy logic here: How could cohabitation not only fail to help—but actually hurt? Commitment—or lack thereof.


First, cohabiters tend to start out with less commitment to Commitment Itself. Psychologist Dr. Larry Kurdek found that heterosexual cohabiters express less commitment to each other than any other group, including straight married couples, committed gay couples, and committed lesbian couples. As renowned sociologist Dr. Linda J. Waite details in her outstanding book, The Case for Marriagewhich shattered any ideas I had about Marriage As A Piece Of Paper or My Relationship As My Business And None Of Yours— cohabiters tend to place less value on many different aspects of commitment, including the idea of marriage, sexual fidelity (both to this partner and in general), and financial responsibility for this partner.   “For better, for richer, in health, and/or until things get tough” –this could well be their solemn vow.


Second, living together changes the people themselves, creating even less commitment once cohabitation has begun. Because cohabitation’s time horizon and commitment are lesser than marriage from Day 1, cohabiting usually leads its practitioners to not only enter the relationship with less investment, but actually to decrease that investment over time—the opposite of what an enduring, happy union requires.



And the longer and more often they cohabit, the greater the erosion of Commitment To Commitment. Which makes me cringe for the very young woman who wrote, “I am a strong advocate of living with someone before deciding to commit fully (read: marriage). I have lived with two boyfriends and each time, I felt like I learned so much that I never could have known any other way.” Likewise, another respondent, years into unwed living with her kids’ father, no longer expressed high hopes for getting married herself. She advised Pete and Tina avoid living together: “Cohabiting will more than likely NOT lead to marriage, unless it is 10 years and multiple children later…and by that point, why get married, right?” Sadly, one of the things they may be learning is How Not To Fully Commit—the antithesis of what the first woman seemed to want, and an impediment to the lasting happiness I would wish for each of them.


Of course, there are exceptions. Science is great at predicting and explaining what happens most of the time to most of the people, but it’s no crystal ball; even cigarettes “only” kill 6 in 10 users, and biologists are hard-pressed to predict which six. And in theory, heterosexual cohabiters can create exactly the same long-term stability as married folks, just without the paperwork (think Hawn/Russell, or Robbins/Sarandon).


But in reality, the very reason we pay attention to such couples is their stunning rarity. In Real Life, the majority step up or out within two years. And it’s commitment itself—not premarital sexual abstinence or religion—that makes the difference in later marital success: Couples who start out cohabitation with firm plans to marry (not nebulous somedays) do not suffer an increased risk of unhappiness or divorce. They behave like the newlyweds they soon will be—people whose time horizon is endless, and who are therefore free to invest fully in every aspect of their union—for better *and* for worse.


So, Wise Readers—Congratulations. Science agrees with your emphasis on commitment, perhaps taking your ideas farther and suggesting that shacking up is actually a pretty bad deal for all but the most imminently marriage-minded.


But what of your other concern about Pete and Tina’s possible move-in—namely, whether a trial separation is more effective than a trial move-in?  And what happened with the real Pete and Tina after they got the information you now have?


You’ll find out soon. And that’s a commitment.





If this article fascinated, intrigued, startled, or moved you, others might feel the same. Please click “Share Article” below and share it with your favorite social media website.


Do you have a question for Duana? Contact her at


All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

« Put A Ring On It: Trial separation versus trial marriage | Main | Folk Wisdom: Should they shack up? »

Reader Comments (21)

Interesting. I wouldn't have thought so, even though I have to admit I've seen it borne out. Of all my friends, the only ones who haven't been divorced (most of them more than once) are those who did not live together first. Well, that and the ones like me who never got married in the first place. But looking at that from the perspective you present here, I begin to see why I didn't get married. Even though I was committed, the woman I was living with was...uh...NOT. So I was lucky in the sense that I "found out early" (just three years into the relationship) that we weren't a good permanent match, rather than getting divorced after ten years. But I will have to rethink whether I would cohabit again, if I got into a sufficiently serious relationship.

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

I believe cohabitating is perfectly fine if the intent is merely a step towards what they have agreed is the inevitable. Pete's lack of commitment and lack of cohesive goals and values are sadly symptomatic of many failed marriages who never lived together prior to marriage. That comes down to the responsibility of the individuals moving towards that union. Married or simply cohabitating. I don't believe you should move in to see if that person is all you want/hope them to be. I think that should be already understood before making that sort of commitment. Much like proposing. If you ask a person's hand in marriage, hopefully you have established an understanding of where you are and the ring is merely punctuating the existing situation and not a fact finding mission in the blind.


July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterQuinn

Fascinating! I completely agree that Tina shouldn't move in with Pete. She would do well to be harder to get :-)

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Daniel, thank you for the really interesting feedback. Like you, I was surprised by the research--not just the findings, but the sheer weight of the scientific agreement about them. Even the extremely liberal writers had to admit, in print, that living together never helped, and often hurt, when it comes to later permanence and happiness.
You bring up another fascinating point as well, with your experience with your former live-in girlfriend (ouch!). Scientific methods have a hard time assessing how many bad marriages are *prevented* by cohabitation. However, as a number of readers pointed out in the online survey, there are other ways to discern a bad match.

July 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

@Quinn: "the ring is merely punctuating the existing situation and not a fact finding mission in the blind." Perfectly said. That's precisely what the research is indicating about why true commitment prior to move-in is vital.
@Joan: ah, you've jumped ahead to our next article :). A number of readers advised Tina to move further away from, rather than towards, Pete. We'll find out about that next time.

July 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Thanks, Duana, for another tremendously helpful article. I think the information is in perfect time with the economic belt-tightening we see today; couples may be tempted to move in together to save on expenses. Fine, if the goal is actually to save money. But if one party's objective is to get married, like Tina's is, then it seems that based on this article, living together could cost her dearly in terms of both time and emotions.

I didn't co-habitate before either of my 2 marriages. Partly due to family and religious expectations, but mostly because living together didn't feel safe enough to me. If I was going to be in a marriage-like situation, then I wanted all the benefits of marriage (financial, emotional ...) and put my name on your house deed and insurance policy by golly!

July 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Joan, thank you! Your point is interesting--I hadn't thought of this in terms of cost reduction, although surely it is a major reason couples cohabit today. There is a way to save $ without cohabiting, though, and that's getting a rommate or living very simply. I'd advise that for couples today who are not ready for full commitment, since cohabiting has the effect of reducing the ability to commit later.
I enjoyed reading about your reasons for not cohabiting, and it seems you were wise.
Interestingly, sometimes a person who is afraid of commitment will try to avoid it even within the bounds of marriage. Recently, I met someone whose boyfriend asked her to cohabit, and when she said, "No. My children and I deserve more of a commitment," he immediately proposed. BUT--in the prenup, he made it clear he was going to keep her off the house deed, keep all separate finances, and refuse to help her with expenses for her children during the marriage: it amounted to formalized cohabitation and lack of commitment. I know you'll find it hard to believe that she was able to turn down such a deal, LOL! But he couldn't believe it at all; really thought he was handing her the moon and stars. The good thing is that because she refused to cohabit, she found out in a really clear way that he was not ever going to commit.

July 20, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Duana, How intriguing you should mention the "uncommitted marriage" --unfortunately, my first one was exactly that. Sure, we had a piece of paper that made us married in the eyes of the law, but we didn't mix our money, our goals, our dreams, our emotions ... or even our laundry. We kept that separate, too.

I thought I was being smart by insisting on marriage with Husband #1 (in my late 20's), and refusing to live together first. But our marriage quickly failed (in less than 3 yrs), and I realized I had married out of fear (one job was ending and I didn't have another one), not love and lifelong commitment. Husband #1 didn't put my name on his house, car, bank account, or life insurance, though he did list me on his health policy. My mother had begged me not to marry this man, pointing out that we had nothing in common, and later referred to our marriage as "the arrangement."

I don't believe in divorce (but I've had one -- how's that for hypocritical?) and wish I didn't have this in my past. I dread that someday I will have to tell my daughter. I wonder if living together in this case would have been better. But then, I think not. The best solution would have been, as you suggest, to get a roommate and live the frugal life.

The second time around, I made sure to marry a man with whom I had alot in common, especially the core values. I think that is the key to a lasting relationship. Husband #2's religious background dictated that we submit to pre-marital counseling, which felt unnecessary and intrusive to me at the time ... but I'm ok with it now. Recognizing the goal of marriage as a lifetime commitment, the counseling was designed to reveal whether our core values were compatible, something I had never even discussed with Husband #1.

I realize that Tina didn't ask for my advice, but here it is. My personal brand of folk wisdom, 40+ years in the making, would tell Tina to: 1) not cohabitate (**or marry**) Pete at this point; 2) get a roommate if she needs to conserve money; 3) be hard to get hard (develop her own interests); and 4) examine where her life objectives and core beliefs do/ do not intersect with Pete's.

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.


Interesting article and column. Somewhat tangentially related...You state above "But without firm marriage plans at move-in, science flatly disagrees—a fact made more compelling by the liberal bent of many social scientists.". I ask then, how good is the science if one's political leanings can influence it?

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

@Joan-- I hope Tina is reading your words! I'm sorry about your first marital experience...sounds like formalized living together, indeed. As for your daughter--in this era, I empathize with how you feel in having to reveal the divorce to her, but she will definitely have had many, many experiences with others who have had divorce. You're only human. It is fine for her to know that Mom made mistakes, but that Mom learned and grew wiser and is in a good position to help her daughter as she becomes a woman.

@Laura-- Years ago, female researchers who believed in daycare tended to find that childcare didn't hurt kids; but male researchers whose wives were staying home took the data and showed that childcare was harmful (after many studies, it's now clear that high-quality childcare compares well with good home care, and confers some social advantages). Which is why good science never rests on Just One Finding-- any enterprise conducted by humans can be tainted by human expectations, so it takes many results before we can become too comfortable acting as if the data are based in reality.

All facts come with a point of view, including this one ;). Because lots of studies show that scientists' pre-conceptions can influence the results, scientists are supposed to conduct "double-blind" studies in which neither they nor the participants are aware of what group the participants are in. In the case of the cohabitation studies, though, that's not an issue--the data are often archival or were collected by persons other than the scientists themselves. The issue then becomes how the questionnaires were worded (leading questions), or how the researchers word their interpretation of results. I could almost hear the strain in some particular scientists' phrasing as they haltingly admitted cohabitation never helps. The fact that they did report it only strengthens the force of the findings; and fortunately, because there are many studies rather than one or two, it's a safe bet that the cohesion of the results points to something real.

July 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Joan- I hope you won't wait too long to tell your daughter about your previous marriage. I was 12 when I found out that my father had been married before he met my mother. Even though the previous marriage was brief and produced no children, I felt enormously betrayed that such a major aspect of my own family history had not been told to me before.

July 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentera different Laura


As always, a well-written and thought-provoking column. If I may play Devil's advocate: who says commitment itself is the goal? Perhaps it is a loving relationship that won't cost thousands of dollars to unwind legally if it doesn't work out.

Just a thought . . .


July 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

A different Laura: Exactly what I feared, that my daughter would feel betrayed. I am so sorry this happened to you. My daughter is age 8. I have rec'd a good suggestion to work on forgiving myself for the divorce. I plan to do that, and then I can tell her soon. I had wondered if she was too young to hear it, but my conscience has been eating at me to come clean. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoan N.

@Lisa, that would be an RWB, Roommate with Benefits. LOL. I would think that if the folks just wanted a roommate so as to not be alone and for the sake of frugality, why the hell not cohabitate. Just as long as they are on the same page and understand that it can end suddenly and hopefully responsibly.

Personally, all couples who plan to get married should move in together to realize any friction points and tweak out any real problems that may surface. Sounds so systematic(overclock that gaming machine! NM). Plus they would have a place to move into right away after the BIG DAY. Its just my opinion and I do know couples that have been together a long time who didn't.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Campos

Hi, Lisa, *Great* question, and of course, the devil's advocate is always welcome! I addressed this article from a commitment-centric view for many reasons: Most singles say they are aiming for commitment; most cohabiters say they are looking for commitment at some point (and are test-driving their current relationship to see if it's worthy); most young adults believe cohabiting is a valid test-drive for marriage; most Americans are unaware of the downsides per research; and the specific scenario Pete presented was about commitment (he, and not Tina, wrote in). This is the angle from which the issue strikes most of the people most of the time, in other words, which is how I approach most columns. Also, the health, wealth and happiness benefits of commitment are overwhelming as compared to cohabitation and as compared to singlehood for the vast majority of people (see Waite's book, The Case For Marriage--she absolutely rules this subject and has hundreds of referenced studies backing her conclusions).
However, there are couples who do not choose commitment, and who openly see living together as a way to have some of the sexual, economic and companionship benefits of being in the same home, without the downsides of committing to full sharing of resources, time, etc; some know the relationship is not forever and want to avoid a divorce later; some want an open sexual relationship. Some have been divorced several times already and would rather avoid than risk it again. Some people are very frankly only seeking the "for better" side of the equation, with no plan of permanence. In all of these cases, there is an institution that fits, and cohabitation is it (or, as Gabriel put it, "RWB"!).

But it's not a trial marriage--and that's exactly what most think it is. Cohabiting is its very own kind of relationship.

A large group of cohabiters I did not mention is the older adult population. The research does not focus on them, mostly for political reasons, I am guessing--they have already had their families, so the political push to see how they and their children are faring is nil. They tend to live together so that they can keep their resources separate to pass down to their own progeny, often because of their grown children's pressure in that direction. My take is that many of these older folks have committed in their hearts, and that they are only remaining separate in some sense to please others; they behave very like married people, unlike younger cohabiters.

July 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

My "now and forever" husband and I lived together for 2 years; he let me know from the beginning that he wanted to get married, but I wasn't ready and didn't think I ever would be. I had been married for 30 years to my first husband and for many reasons, I saw no reason for every remarrying. Interestingly enough, our 4 children from former marriages wanted us to marry, and we finally did...but only after my son pointed out that I needed to marry this wonderful man in order for him to have health insurance (which his job didn't provide). So, for me it was a very practical thing at the time. We are now both in our 60's, and we've been married for ten years, and I'm so grateful that this wonderful man and I got married...and not just because of the practical reasons. I'm in it whole-heartedly now.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLouise

@a different Laura and Joan: It makes my day to see you helping one of my visions for the Comments section is to continue the discussion for everyone's benefit. Thank you. Laura, your advice is perfectly said, and makes perfect sense. Some research on other topics, such as revealing adoption history, shows that the older a child is when the truth is revealed about family history, the more betrayed he or she feels; younger is better. Joan, I wish you well as you forgive yourself, and am behind you as you tell your daughter about this part of your life.

@Louise, congratulations on your happy marriage! Men can court a woman into committing, but women seldom can (next article's topic); I'm glad it worked out that way for you, and that time proved your husband to be a genuine catch. Thank you for sharing your experience.

July 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Great topic! I'm in a similar situation. I want to wait until marriage to move in, but my boyfriend views that to mean I don't love him enough to want to live with him and thus won't want to ever marry him anyway. Yikes.

Thanks for the interesting site! Your posts are always interesting and I love the back up from the scientific community to add the experience and opinions of thousands of people to these topics. Looking forward to the next chapter of Pete & Tina's story (and hoping to get some tips for myself)!

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMia

Joan, I wish you luck in working through your feelings about your divorce and sharing your past with your daughter. I think 8 is plenty young to simply incorporate the information. Actually, I think I could have at 12 if it had been presented differently. Instead of my father sharing with me, I learned during the first session of family counseling when the counselor was gathering a family history. So, basically, I overheard my father tell a stranger something I didn't know about my own family. In this day and age your daughter probably knows children whose families have been through divorce and remarriage. It doesn't have to be a big deal, more of a side note, an interesting thing her family has in common with those families.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentera different Laura

I'm sure there are exceptions; but I would agree with science in that living together outside of marriage is very shaky at best. How can there any commitiment? If there are no ties to each other besides financial, what substance is there to commit? This is a world of "me, me me" and "how can I profit from this relationship?" The question to ask each other is: "what is the motivation for our relationship?" Is it sex? Is it love? Or maybe just having a roommate. I believe that marriage is sacrificial and covenantal. You don't get to preview how the next 20 years of your marriage will work out. So doesn't it make sense to start a deep emotional relationship FIRST, and then take the next steps. The big problem is that too many people (including myself) get it all wrong having lots of sex first and then settling down. Having a great sexual relationship with no friendship or emotional connection will almost always end in tears. Dr. Kurdik agrees that when you start with low commitment, that it may end with no commitment. It saddens me that women or men will give themselves that easily to someone else. Ask the question: "How bad do want to live with me? "Then why won't we consider marriage?" I believe that if you're not willing to sacrifice and struggle for your mate, then you're just not that committed. Men are notorious for avoiding commitment or having the "Peter Pan Syndrome". I would suggest to Tina: find a real man...tricks are for kids!

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Milne

@Mia, thank you so much. I hope you'll be reading next week, because we're going to get into the trial-separation versus trial-cohabitation topic, and I hope it proves helpful to you. If not, then write to me at, or here in Comments, and I'll help as best I can. For now, let me say that you are behaving in your own best interest as well as the best interest of the relationship by waiting until you're both ready for full commitment. Or, in clinical terms: You go, girl! :)

@David, "You don't get to preview how the next 20 years of your marriage will work out. So doesn't it make sense to start a deep emotional relationship FIRST, and then take the next steps. " Perfectly said. There really isn't a way to preview marriage; life will throw many curve balls, and the commitment needs to be there before they hit. That does not mean that finding the right partner is random; it just means there are many ways to observe whether the other person is a good match--ways that are not only different from, but far more accurate than cohabiting. I am prepping a column on that topic now. Thanks again for writing in.

July 22, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.