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Research: How Marriage After Cohabiting Changes The Relationship

By September 25, 2023Blog
Marriage Vs. Cohabiting Research - Sam Owen - Relationship Coach Blog

Marriage And Cohabiting

Some people claim that living with their partner is the same as marriage whilst other cohabiters say they simply are not bothered about getting married. But what’s the reality for those who’ve experienced both?

Is cohabiting the same as marriage for those who have cohabited first or is the transition to marriage better, or worse, than living together as a couple?

Researchers set out to look at the difference between cohabiting and marriage through the eyes of childfree newlyweds who had previously cohabited and were now married for the first time in their life.

But before we explore some of the patterns and interviewee comments they uncovered, let’s have a look at some of the questions that you may have pondered yourself, whether you’re (a) currently cohabiting with no plans to marry, (b) cohabiting with plans to marry, or (c) previously cohabited and are now married.

  • Do couples argue and resolve disagreements in the same way once married as they did when they were cohabiting?
  • Do partners invest their time in the same things or is there a change post-marriage?
  • Do couples invest their money more like a team once they’ve said ‘I do’?
  • Do family and friends and society at large see cohabiters in the same way as they do spouses and does this impact how they feel and how they view themselves?
  • Do they feel calmer and more confident about life, about the ups and downs of their relationship and their future?


Researchers Interview Married Couples Who Cohabited First

Researchers interviewed 36 individuals who had cohabited and were now in their first marriage, and had been married between three and 12 months.*

The researchers write:

‘When asked broadly whether any changes with getting married had been noticed, it was common for newlyweds to declare that they “did not really see anything different.” However, once probed with specific questions about typical facets of adjusting to marriage, virtually everyone could offer at least one example of how things changed with marriage.’

This is interesting given 22 of those 36 interviewees (61%) had stated that they had not expected their relationship to change as a result of getting married, 14 had thought they themselves would not change and 18 had thought that their spouse would not change. Despite those expectations, the subsequent interviews revealed that all but four of them stated differences they had noticed between cohabiting and being married. (And perhaps those four will notice changes a little further beyond their first three to 12 months of marriage, and my professional guess is that they will.)

It is odd that people should convince themselves that marriage is the same as cohabiting when the commitment is at its core, entirely different to merely living together, no matter how much you love(d) each other as cohabiters.

Being married is ‘maximum commitment’, cohabiting is ‘medium-commitment’. If they were packages on a website, one might be called ‘Commitment Pro’ whilst the other might be named ‘Commitment Intermediate’. 🙂 You can just visualise that list of features with more ticks going down the page in the right hand column under ‘Commitment Pro’.

Can’t get away from your partner’s family ✓

Partner’s problems are now your problems ✓

Ha ha ha, okay, that’s a little tongue in cheek. But what specifically did the interviewees find to be different?

Well, if we first summarise their overall perspective, they actually thought the transition from cohabiting to marriage went in a positive direction.


Changes Noticed As Themes

Below are some of the key themes the researchers uncovered which you can use to help you think about where you’re headed and where you want to be headed and whether there is anything you want to address with your cohabiting partner, or spouse, as a result.


1. Deepening Perspective Towards Their Relationship

The newlyweds referenced that the relationship felt more serious, created a longer-term view, and a deepened commitment.

They reported that having a spouse seemed ‘more real’ and required more responsibility and maturity.

As an example, one wife who had premaritally cohabited with her now-husband for 12 months, mentioned how their home felt like a bachelor pad before whereby if there were dirty dishes, there was little concern about those dirty dishes, but once married, those dirty dishes took on a different meaning because it was now ‘our home…It’s more of a home now. Because we have our little family.’

Another wife who had premaritally cohabited with her husband for over four years mentioned how he would come home and say things like, ‘we need to start looking for life insurance’.

Other things that cropped up across interviews were thoughts like, having to work as a team, realising one has to do everything possible to make the marriage work, and the sense that this is for ‘the rest of [one’s] life’. Plus, a stronger sense of loyalty or commitment towards their spouse.


2. Solidifying Their Relationship

Participants shared that they felt closer, like there was a greater sense of unity and togetherness, and also feeling more able to be their authentic self.

This increased feeling of unity was referenced through descriptions such as ‘a lot closer’, ‘grown in [their] relationship’, ‘work as a pair’ and having greater empathy.

One husband who had cohabited premaritally with his now-wife for 49 months said: ‘I feel more responsible for my actions I guess because I’m always thinking about, she’s not just my fiancé or girlfriend. She’s my wife…You know, I have to worry about how my actions affect my wife now.’

Another participant, a wife who had premaritally cohabited with her spouse for 47 months stated: ‘I was the kind of person, if I wanted to do something, I was going to do it. I’m very headstrong. So it did change, you don’t expect yourself to change as much as you do.’

On the flip side, one wife mentioned feeling weird about having (willingly) taken her spouse’s surname as it seemed as though she was more connected to her husband’s family and that this change had felt bigger than expected. Plus one husband mentioned now feeling forced to spend time with his wife.

However, another wife appreciated the connection, stating: ‘I like that I don’t have to do everything on my own now. Like I don’t have to go through life worrying about everything on my own. The house is our responsibility. The finances are our responsibility.’

Another wife who had premaritally cohabited for three years mentioned a feeling of pride now for her husband and what he does: ‘Not like it was before where it was oh I’m a girlfriend or fiancé. There’s just that level of respect that got added. That I’m proud of him for the things that he’s done and it affects me now. So I take even more pride in it.’

All except three couples mentioned that they had unified their finances more and shared things more and now had the feeling that this is ‘our money’.

And simply feeling more at ease being one’s true self was also mentioned, the ability to let one’s guard down and not be putting one’s best foot forward.


3. Managing Conflict

The reported changes in managing conflict were mostly positive in nature. The most common feeling was that arguments had become easier to resolve than before and were generally less ‘emotionally charged’.

Others mentioned how the perception of problems had changed where things that seemed more of an issue before no longer seemed that noteworthy. The long-term perspective on a life together seemed to have changed perspectives on what they faced together.

One husband (premaritally cohabited for 12 months) noted: ‘I think we’re so much faster to get over things like that because, they just don’t matter in our grand scheme of things. It doesn’t matter. I guess I didn’t expect that. I didn’t foresee that to come.’

Another husband (premaritally cohabited for 49 months) noted: ‘Whereas back then, whenever we had a disagreement, it was serious because our relationship wasn’t as solid and now we’re married, and, it’s funny because in the beginning I was telling you it wasn’t changing anything, but as I’m saying this, yeah, it’s stronger and now I’m not worried about it when we have little disagreements.’

Interviewees also mentioned addressing issues head on more now rather than sweeping them under the rug as they had done, and that learning to compromise had also become easier now.

Though most conflict management changes were positive post-marriage, three people, two of whom were husband and wife, had mentioned that they were more explosive with one another because they felt they could be as the spouse would still be there tomorrow.


4. Presence Of Marital Permanence

The permanence of being married caused them to reflect more on ‘the future’ and ‘long-term’ and the rest of their lives.

Participants commented about being ‘in this for the long haul and [having] each other’s back’ and also ‘…feeling secure, knowing that I have him for the rest of my life…No matter what I do, I know he’ll be there. I feel like maybe we’re a little more comfortable around each other, like we act a little more stupid and those types of things, that’s been pretty enjoyable.’


The Difference Between Marriage and Cohabiting

So the four main overarching themes in this sample of newlyweds who had premaritally cohabited convey that there is a difference, a very clear, and mostly positive difference between the experience of cohabiting and being married:

  1. Deepening Perspective Towards Their Relationship
  2. Solidifying Their Relationship
  3. Managing Conflict
  4. Presence Of Marital Permanence

Interestingly, the changes were often unexpected by them. And they found that their partner changed, they changed and the relationship changed, usually for the better, once they were married.

Some common themes that also cropped up were:

These are some key areas that you might now recognise that you want to work on and towards in order to have a happy ever after with your beloved.

Relationships do evolve over time so it’s vital to maintain good relationship habits to ensure the relationship stays happy and healthy for both. Sometimes you may veer away from this path, but as long as you love each other enough to get it back on track and do so quick enough, you’ll be fine.

So next time you hear someone say, ‘it’s just a piece of paper’, these are some great real-life examples of how marriage is so much more…and worth fighting for.



* Hall, S. S., & Adams, R. A. (2020). “Not Just Me Anymore.” A Qualitative Study of Transitioning to Marriage after Cohabitation. Journal of Family Issues, 41(12), 2275–2296.