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Living Together Before Marriage: A Risky Move?

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RadioEd is a biweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore new takes on today’s top stories. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Several studies have found that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced. But do the numbers tell the whole story?

In this special Valentine's Day episode of RadioEd, Emma speaks with psychologist and University of Denver research professor Scott Stanley about why cohabitating before you say "I do" doesn't necessarily mean your relationship won't last. As he reveals, it's all about commitment, communication and clarity.

Show Notes:

Scott Stanley, Ph.D., is a research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He has published widely with research interests including commitment, cohabitation, communication, conflict, risk factors for divorce, the prevention of marital distress, and couple development before marriage. Along with Dr. Howard Markman and colleagues, he has been involved in the research, development, and refinement of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) for over 30 years.Among various projects, Stanley and colleagues (Elizabeth Allen, Howard Markman, & Galena Rhoades) are conducting a large, randomized trial of a variant of PREP in the U. S. Army, funded by NICHD.

Stanley, Galena Rhoades, and Howard Markman have also conducted a longitudinal study of cohabitation and couple development that was funded by NICHD. Various studies are in progress with this national data set of individuals involved in serious relationships but who were not married at the start of the study. Stanley has authored or co-authored various books including Fighting for Your Marriage, The Power of Commitment, and A Lasting Promise. He is a founder of PREP and co-author of the Within Our Reach, an experiential-based curriculum for couples, and the Within My Reach, an experiential-based curriculum for individuals.

More Information:

Sliding vs Deciding: Scott Stanley's Blog

"The Pre-engagement Cohabitation Effect: A Replication and Extension of Previous Findings," study by DU's Scott Stanley, Galena Rhoades & Howard Markman

Scott Stanley's Psychology Today articles

"Is Cohabitation Still Linked to Greater Odds of Divorce?" by Scott Stanley

"Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Dissolution: An Examination of Recent Marriages," study by Wendy Manning & Jessica Cohen

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Emma Atkinson (VO):

It’s Valentine’s Day—a day for expressing love to those closest to you, especially romantic love. What happens when you love someone, like, love, love? Generally—but not always—you meet, attraction leads to interest, and interest leads to sex and commitment.

And for many people, commitment means moving in together—cohabitating is the more scientific term for it.

That’s what it means for my boyfriend and me. We’ve lived together for almost three years. So when I recently saw some research that suggests couples who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced, my heart sank. Have my boyfriend and I doomed our marriage before it’s even begun?

If you just look at the numbers, research seems to suggest that, yeah, it may not be such a great idea to move in together before saying your vows. But don’t fret quite yet—an expert on marriage and relationships from the University of Denver says the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Scott Stanley (00:10):

“My name is Scott Stanley, and I'm a research professor at the University of Denver. And I specialize in romantic relationships, marriage, family, and what we can learn about how to help people succeed and their aspirations.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Stanley doesn’t just study love and relationships. He uses his findings to actually work with real-life couples to improve their relationships.

Stanley (15:20):

“I like thinking about how it works, how you study how it works, and then what can you learn that's actually useful, [what] you could teach somebody else that might inform their dating strategy or how their family life might go on. We're really interested in getting findings, getting knowledge and translating it into what could be useful for somebody else.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Anyway, back to the whole living together before marriage thing. Let’s imagine a couple—they meet somewhere, it could be on Tinder or Hinge or even at a bar, like in the olden days. And things are getting a little serious.

Scott Stanley (35:03):

“They're hanging out with each other and they like each other, or they seem to like each other. And they're certainly attraction or sexual attraction. There's something going on.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Now let’s imagine that the couple has reached a turning point.

Scott Stanley (35:57):

“And maybe it's six months and somebody's lease is up. And there's sort of a process of like, well, half my stuff's already here.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Or maybe one of them has to move across the country for a job, or someone’s rent is being hiked an outrageous amount (relatable) and they can’t afford their one-bedroom anymore. And it becomes pretty obvious that the next step is moving in together.

Stanley says this is where it can get tricky. This is the spot that can predict whether this couple will go the distance.

Scott Stanley (36:28):

“What's pretty common, is more likely than not, is people move in together without having a talk. I mean, there's enough of a talk like, hey, my lease is up. That's why my stuff's showing up here. But it's not like, well, what does this mean? What are we doing? Do we have a future? I'm thinking marriage, are you thinking marriage? People don't do that. Because again, ambiguity, and it's scary, and you might get rejected. So that's like a finesse point. So we're living together now? Well, we're living together. And we haven't figured out where we're headed together. That's a problem for a lot of people.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

And once you’re living together, you’re a little stuck. And sometimes people can stay in relationships they really shouldn’t be in—relationships they’re not happy in—just because it’s too much trouble to break up and move out.

And that can lead to marriages that just don’t work.

Scott Stanley (37:42):

“This point, this comes out of like, now a couple of decades of research, it is pretty obvious. And the data supports this; that maybe if you are going to move in together, you know, it's fine to wait until marriage, if this is a marriage thing. Couples that wait till marriage actually look pretty darn good, on average. But who also looks pretty good as couples who only do that after they're already engaged.

So what's that mean? And we predicted this a long time ago. And we just find it in study after study after study. You've already clarified what you're both thinking about the future before you made it harder to move on. That's pretty obvious, it's not hard to actually even describe that to somebody, maybe you shouldn't move in together before, you know, you're both thinking the same thing about what you want, because you are making it harder to break up. And you might discover this person is just really not even thinking the same way you are about where this is going.

So that's like a great example of all of what we do, because there's theory, there's like sort of an obvious sort of probably true point, which was shown in study after study. And it immediately leads to like an actionable thing you can try to teach people to help them have better odds in succeeding in their romantic relationships.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

What do couples who are engaged or married have in common? They’ve both, for lack of a better term, DTR’d. Defined the relationship. They’ve committed to each other and their future together in a very real, almost tangible way.

It’s all about sliding versus deciding, as Stanley calls it. Are you sort of sliding into living together? Are you making the decision because it kind of makes sense, without really getting into the nitty-gritty of what it means for you as a couple? Or are you deciding, having a serious, sit-down talk—maybe multiple talks—about what you’re both thinking about the future?

Emma Atkinson (interview, 43:15):

“Something that comes to mind when I think about this is it's actually less about being engaged, or being married, and more about the intentionality and decision-making that comes with those societal constructs, right?”

Scott Stanley (43:30):

“Yeah, because they [hold] a lot of valuable information. I mean, I respect that some people are just not doing those things. So there's some people that I'm never going to be married, I don't believe in you know, whatever. And that's fine. You know, that people can be a lot of different ways. But if somebody is on that path, some of the things that are available to them are powerful symbols of clarity if they use them wisely, in terms of timing and sequence and intention.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

The whole sliding versus deciding thing can get a little murky. People may think they’re making a firm decision to live together without actually discussing what the choice means for their relationship down the road—are they intending this to be a final step before engagement? Are they not sure about marriage but wanting to live together until they figure it out?

Scott Stanley (41:35):

“One might actually be thinking, well, I want to marry this person, but I can't say it now. And the other might be thinking, There's no way I'm marrying this person, I'm not settling down for 20 years. But I'm not saying that because they're going to stop sleeping with me. Both have some motivation to maybe not be clear at a moment when actually, it's not a good idea not to be clear, it's pretty important to be clear. The other big linchpin of that work is about the timing of clarity, about commitment. So it's not just about clarity, and decision making and being intentional. But if you're looking for like, you're actually looking for like a mate, you're looking for a life partner, you're looking for a spouse. Is that clear or not? Can you make it clear? Not before you make it harder to break up? That's like the whole ballgame there. If you wait till marriage, well, it's really clear. Okay, I think we mean to be married before, like we live to live together. If you wait till after you're engaged, it's really clear. I mean, engagement is like a lot of clarity about being on the same page, if that's what you both are into, and are headed towards. So that's really protected. But moving in together, both by sliding, and not really understanding if you're even on the same page about something related to commitment doesn't do people on average, but that's absolutely a higher risk path. More people are not going to do well on that path. And on the other paths, because they made it harder to break up before they decided what they wanted to do.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Back to me and my relationship for a second. I wanted to ask Stanley, as a relationship expert, whether he thought my boyfriend and I had slid into living together—or whether we’d made a sound, intentional decision.

Emma Atkinson (interview, 44:12):

“So my partner and I, my boyfriend and I, prior to the pandemic, decided, ‘We're gonna move in together.’ We had a big talk; we said, ‘Yep, we see our futures together,’ you know, and I look back at that, and I think you know what, that was pretty good. That was pretty mature for two 22-year-olds. And then we said, you know, we see this going the distance, let's move in together. Let's do it. It was a big decision, because otherwise he was going to move home to California—”

Scott Stanley (44:38):

“—Because people were looking for a place to hunker down.”

Emma Atkinson (interview, 44:41):

Well, this is prior to the pandemic. And then the pandemic came, and my roommates weren't being very safe. We hadn't moved in together—we hadn't found a place yet, it was going to be next fall. My roommates weren't being very safe. His were being very safe. I said, ‘I think I'm going to stay with you for a little while.’ And he was like, ‘Yep, that sounds good.’ And since then, we have not not lived together. Which is like, in its own, kind of sliding, right?”

Scott Stanley (45:17):

“So here's how I hear that. You had actually made—you're on the same page about the future, before the shift. Right, right. That's like a big part. That's one of the biggest. And then circumstances—what actually, the way that that happened is sort of sliding. And this is relevant, because circumstances sort of drove you on. I mean, given the prior decision, and where you two were headed, that made more sense, but you didn't like decide to do it that way. Right. And you just split apart the two points I made very, very nicely. So if you want to include this in the podcast, I mean, it's actually a really nice example, where that timing part, you got just right, the process was still like, pretty good.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

I was super relieved. Not that I thought my boyfriend and I were actually doomed, but it’s nice to hear that sometimes there’s more to research than just the numbers on the page. And it’s less about specific aspects or characteristics of a relationship that will determine whether it’s more likely to succeed, and more about how communicating in a healthy and clear way can help a couple go the distance.

Stanley explains a little further here:

Scott Stanley (46:17):

“I mean, you can't believe how many people haven't done that. And they're living together, and they're having a baby, and they still haven't, like talked about whether there's a future. And that's pretty, it's not uncommon, I mean, it's actually pretty common, but that's really the way things go, and then you got people that are really stuck.

So there's a lot of things that are sort of in sliding, maybe I should say, this slide is not always bad. And generally going in… if it's a big transition that's potentially constraining of your future options, it's better to be making a decision. And it's best to be making a decision openly with this other person, you know, the DTR, the whole thing. But having said that, a lot of people slide into a pretty great place.

So it's really a matter of odds, you know, what sort of improves somebody's odds. There's a lot of people that actually are very happily longtime married, or whatever; they're in a great relationship, long lasting, all the things they wanted. And they completely stumbled into it. And it's more about who their friend network was, who they were around, and, you know, they maybe weren't even gonna probably make much of a bad decision anyway, because there weren't a lot of bad decisions right in front of them. So a lot of people slide into a perfectly fine place. And some people make really deliberate decisions. And there's no guarantees, it doesn't work out, you know, it's not what they thought.

So you can do everything right, and not have something turn out right. And we all see people that have done like everything sort of, wrong’s too strong a word, but unwisely, not in the best way. And things are great. So that can happen. So it's all about what you can do to shift your odds in the direction that you would like them to go.”

Emma Atkinson (VO):

Stanley says there’s a lot that should go into making the decision to live with someone. It’s not just about love, about attraction, but about making little and big sacrifices for the happiness of your partner.

Basically, you want to watch for those red flags—things about our partners that we sometimes bury our heads into sand and choose to ignore.

Stanley shares a good example of one of these red flags he’d witnessed recently.

Scott Stanley (52:34):

“Before COVID, I was flying a lot, you know, giving talks, different things. And I remember this one time I'm in the I'm in an airport. I think I'm on the way home doesn't really matter. I think I'm on the way back to Denver, and it was maybe an hour and a half layover. And I went to this probably it was a pizza place. I like pizza pretty well. I'm getting some food. And there was this couple sitting too close to me. And I only say too close to me because I could hear what they were talking about. I wasn't like trying to hear what they were talking about.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

He wasn’t even thinking of work or about relationships. But this couple, a man and a woman, was speaking pretty loudly. They were talking about the woman’s clothes. She was dressed for summer, Stanley says, in a tank top and shorts.

And she mentioned that she wanted to put on more clothes for her flight—right? Who likes being cold on an airplane? But the guy, Stanley says, objected. He said he didn’t want her to cover up.

Scott Stanley (54:12):

The only thing I could think of is alright. You like how she looks with less on and you like the way you look being near her when she looks that way. So you don't want her to cover up more. I couldn't figure out like what else like, but it's not like the perfect example of like, he won't give up the most ridiculous little thing he wants for what's good for you, like you should be running. You should. You should know, she didn't know or she may not know. Hopefully she eventually figured it out. That's like a really bad sign. Like stuff like that. It's real information. And people should look for information.

That's not as much about romance, but it's about commitment, if that's what they're seeking, you know, information about whether this person can actually do Do what's good for them? Not all, you know, everybody gets selfish. But you know, can they do that? Can they show care for you? That's really valuable information, and you should look for it and not avoid seeing it.

Emma Atkinson (VO):

So basically, if you’re communicating clearly and honestly with your partner about what you both want in the short term and long term, plus prioritizing their well-being and happiness, your odds of a happy, successful relationship are much higher—even if you live together before marriage.

One more thing to add—we’ll have another Valentine’s Day story posted on the DU Newsroom website today, all about commitment in queer relationships. Check it out!

Thanks again to our guest, University of Denver professor Scott Stanley. For more information on his work and the sources used in this episode, check out our show notes at If you enjoyed this episode, please consider subscribing, liking and reviewing the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Tamara Chapman is our managing editor. Debora Rocha is our production assistant. James Swearingen arranged our theme. I’m Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd.

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