A substantial number of practicing Christians believe that living together before marriage is a good idea—at least 41 percent, by one estimate. Although far more nonreligious people believe the same thing (88%), 41 percent is not a small group, and it’s likely growing over time.
A recent report from the Institute for Family Studies surveyed people who married for the first time in the years 2010 to 2019. My colleague Galena Rhoades and I found conclusions similar to those of past studies: Patterns of cohabitation before marriage remain associated with higher odds of divorce.
What people often miss is the inertia that comes with moving in together. In essence, cohabiting couples are making it harder to break up before nailing down their commitments. Many of them get stuck in a relationship they might otherwise have moved on from.
Consistent with our theory of inertia, we find that couples who moved in together before engagement were 48 percent more likely to end their marriages than those who cohabited only after getting wed or at least engaged. We also show that moving in together for “relationship testing” or financial convenience is associated with higher risks for divorce.
In light of this research, Christians contemplating marriage may wonder what they can do to improve their odds of staying married. Relationship advice is cheap and easy to come by. But this latest research suggests that certain steps and precautions will improve the likelihood of staying together “’til death do us part.”
First, don’t believe the hype that living together is good for your relationship.
Although conservative Christians are less likely than most to cohabit before marriage, many do. Given that most men and women believe it can increase their chance for marital success, the practice is highly tempting. But there’s very little evidence that living together in advance improves the odds of an enduring marriage. By contrast, there’s a lot of evidence that it complicates that goal.
In defiance of cultural trends, couples should consider the traditional path: engagement first, then marriage, then moving in together. Those steps help ensure clarity about the commitment you’re making as you move forward into a shared life. They also give you a clearer decision line that separates your life before marriage and after it.
Slow down. Timing and sequence can get you on the right relationship path.
There are benefits to going slowly as a relationship develops. Super slow? No. Some couples wait years and years to get married, long after they know what they want the future to look like. That approach can bring its own problems—for example, entering marriage without the joy and energy of a shared commitment.
Why is it important not to rush things? Two people need time to learn more about each other, clarify expectations and beliefs, and develop their relationship in a community of family and faith. In too many relationships, both partners believe they’re on the same page about marriage when they’re not. It takes time to get clarity. Some Christians move too fast toward marriage because they’re abstaining from sex and want to get to, well, everything. But they miss a lot of what they need to see.
How slow should you go? It depends. I often tell people they should see a person through at least four seasons. For most, though, one year is on the shorter side of things. Similarly, a long engagement can be valuable. It gives the couple a chance to practice a high level of commitment and “try on” being publicly devoted to each other with marriage as the goal. And it often draws out challenges that can make or break the relationship.
Decide; don’t slide.
A commitment involves making a choice to give up other choices. It’s a decision—and one that should be based on good information. But surprisingly few relationships follow this basic model. An important study on cohabitation showed that people tend to slide into living together, with no discussion about it and no decision reflecting commitment.
We see a similar lack of intention in how men and women communicate. We live in the age of ambiguity. Partners often avoid being candid with each other, perhaps in the naïve belief that if they don’t express their desires, they’ll hurt less if the relationship fails. But, of course, that rarely works. While it’s not a good idea to have “the talk” on a first or second date, don’t avoid deeper discussions when things change and become serious.
Candor is especially important because dating partners often have very different levels of commitment. You don’t want to find that out after you’ve said “I do.” By talking things through with a potential spouse, you leave less room for misunderstanding, and you’re more likely to bring mutual intention to a lifelong promise.
This “deciding” approach doesn’t guarantee success in a relationship, nor does sliding into it mean you’re doomed. But, on balance, more marriages would last if partners got their signals clear long before making life-altering transitions.
Don’t move in together to test the relationship.
If you want to find out if the person you’re dating is a good fit, you can do that without moving in. Take a relationship education course. Talk about what a future together would look like. See if you’re compatible by dating for a longer period of time. Take time to experience your partner in different social settings. Pay attention to how you feel with this person and how he or she treats others. And ask trusted friends, family members, and pastors what they think.
If you currently live with your partner, put in the hard work of figuring out where you are headed. Study the relationship and its challenges. Talk openly and clearly about expectations. Don’t avoid asking hard questions. Ambiguity is not your friend. Seek input from others you trust, including pastors, lay leaders, and wise friends. Get information, support, and wisdom wherever you can find it. And finally, use all available resources.
Any couple with a serious commitment can explore the many books, online resources, workshops, and therapy services that were created to support them. Here are some suggestions:
Consider reading The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman, Reconnected: Moving from Roommates to Soulmates in Your Marriage by Greg and Erin Smalley, or A Lasting Promise: The Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage by me and my colleagues—Daniel Trathen, Savanna McCain, Milt Bryan—as well as other books on relationships and marriage preparation.
Premarital training or counseling:
Evidence suggests that premarital training and counseling services may help prevent marital problems, so look for premarital support in your area. Your local church can be a great resource as well. The pastors or lay leaders in your faith community may offer helpful guidance.
For couples facing problems, find help sooner than later. Too many people wait too long before getting professional support. And if you’re in a relationship you’re not sure about, see a counselor on your own who might help you get perspective.
Workshops for couples:
Although still rare, more and more churches provide marriage and relationship workshops (as do various community agencies). These educational workshops can help couples strengthen their connection and commitment. You can also find rigorously tested online programs for couples. They’re not coming from a Christian perspective, but nonetheless they are solid programs.
OurRelationship is an online relationship education program based on a popular, effective couple therapy approach. Find it at our relationship.com.
ePREPis an online program founded on the decades of work in the Prevention and Relationship Education Program. Find it at lovetakeslearning.com.
Look for other online resources as well.
The team at PREP Inc.—full disclosure: I am co-owner—produces a variety of resources to help people succeed in their most important relationships, including a four-minute video that’s based on our research, available on YouTube: “Relationship DUI—Are You Sure You’re in Love?” This video explains the risks of going too fast and getting locked in too quickly. It’s a fantastic video to share with a friend.
The Institute for Family Studies also offers relevant resources. A few years ago, my colleague Galena Rhoades and I authored a public report titled Before “I Do” on how premarital experiences are associated with relationship quality after marriage.
There’s a lot of talk these days about loneliness and isolation. It’s a serious problem. Research suggests that couples, too, are less and less likely to be in community with others and more prone to be “alone together.” That’s not the best path for your marriage.
But there is good news. If you are not involved in a church community, you can be. One of the best ways to protect your marriage—and your own well-being—is getting connected to others who can root for you and your marriage, pray with you, and be there as you travel the road ahead. You can also support and encourage others in a similar position.
If you’re an “alone together” couple, find a place where you and your mate (or mate to be) can develop in a community, and start to pursue a fuller, more meaningful life. It’s one of many ways that the two of you can decide, not slide, into your future.
Scott Stanley is a research professor in the psychology department at the University of Denver and a senior fellow at the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for Family Studies.