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Research: Relationship Quality Among Cohabiting vs Married Couples

By May 22, 2023Blog
Research - Relationship Quality among Cohabiting vs Married Couples - Sam Owen relationships coach

Many more people cohabit now than a few decades ago and given the rise in its occurrence, it’s helpful to know what this means for the day-to-day reality of couples in these situations.

Is it worth marrying before cohabiting or at least having intentions to marry at some point (soon)? What are the risks of cohabiting before marriage? What’s the motivation behind cohabiting before marriage or not intending to marry at all?

Well, researchers conducted a study using data from the nationally representative 2010 Married and Cohabiting Couples (MCC) survey of cohabiting and married couples who had been together no more than 10 years*.

The findings will help you to think about your situation, or that of a loved one, and what you might like to change.


Relationship Quality among Cohabiting versus Married Couples

The researchers compared four categories of couples and also looked at gender differences within those categories:

  • Direct marrieds (married without prior cohabitation);
  • Marrieds who had premaritally cohabited;
  • Cohabitors with plans to marry;
  • Cohabitors without marriage plans.

To assess relationship quality, the researchers looked at relationship happiness as an indicator of positive relationship quality and relationship disillusionment (perceived change in relationship qualities such as affection and love) as a an indicator of negative relationship quality.

Overall, direct marrieds reported the highest relationship quality whilst cohabitors without plans to marry reported the lowest relationship quality.

In the middle were married couples who had premaritally cohabited and cohabitors who had plans to marry and for these two groups, relationship quality levels were the same.


Direct marrieds

Amongst both men and women, direct marrieds were found to have the lowest levels of relationship disillusionment. Women in the direct marrieds group had the highest levels of relationship happiness. Men in the direct marrieds group had only slightly higher levels of relationship happiness compared with the men who cohabited before marriage.

So overall, in more recent times, marriage without prior cohabitation increases relationship quality, and especially so for women.


Comparing the subgroups further

In comparing marrieds who premaritally cohabited with cohabitors with plans to marry:

  • Men’s relationship quality – using their indicators of relationship happiness and relationship disillusionment – did not significantly differ between the two groups.
  • Women had similar relationship happiness levels in the two groups.
  • Cohabiting women with plans to marry had greater relationship disillusionment, on average, than the married women who had cohabited premaritally.

It’s possible these women are simply eager to marry, as planned, experience doubts and anxieties until those plans are realised, and feel happier once their marriage plans are realised.

In comparing cohabiters without marriage plans, with the other three couple groups:

  • Men and women in the cohabiters without marriage plans group had the lowest levels of relationship happiness and the highest levels of relationship disillusionment compared with all other groups.


If it’s not forever, is it worth living together?

So cohabiting with no plans to marry, resulted in the least relationship quality of all types of cohabitating couples, which begs the question, should you just not move in together if you’ve no intention of marrying or if you’re not sure yet?

Would your relationship give you more happiness if you weren’t living together? And would your relationship have the best chance of surviving and you eventually deciding to marry if you didn’t live together prematurely or before marriage?

If the relationship does eventually dissolve, would it be a lot easier for you to move on to the next chapter of your life if you haven’t got all those memories and habits and experiences of living together? Would it entail a lot less heartache?

And importantly, would not cohabiting help give you greater clarity into whether this is a relationship you want to keep and make into a lifelong marriage? And if it’s not for life, is it worth so much investment of your effort and time? Time. That thing you never get back. Time is precious.


Marriage gives you a different mindset

When you’re not intending to marry, and yet you’re living together, how much more difficult is it to resolve your arguments and increase togetherness and relationship growth when you’re not coming from a place of ‘we are a team for life’?

Think about it. The level of resolve is going to be different to that of a married couple. How much is your approach to your relationship problems, albeit subconsciously sometimes, shaped by the fact that you are not planning to marry?

And if you are living together and plan to marry, but haven’t yet created definitive plans to, are you already really fighting for your relationship like a married couple who’s in it for life? Or are you deep down waiting to be officially married before you give it that level of effort?

Whether you’re married or not, if you’re not fighting for a happy relationship like you want it ’til death parts you, then you are reinforcing its lack of importance, which then creates more conflict over time, which in turn will change your self-image over time, too.

Not only does a lack of psychological commitment change your relationship, it changes you.


Create the future you truly want

Of course people date and cohabit and delay marriage for different reasons, but are those reasons still serving you even if they once did? That’s the thing to stop and think about.


Here are five additional questions to think about if you’re in a non-marital relationship:

  1. Deep down, do I want to be married one day?
  2. What difference would someone officially declaring their love and commitment to me for life, make to how I feel about myself?
  3. What difference would someone officially declaring their love and commitment to me for life, make to how I feel about them?
  4. What difference would someone officially declaring their love and commitment to me for life, make to our relationship?
  5. What difference would someone officially declaring their love and commitment to me for life, make to how I feel about life?


Here are five additional questions to think about if you’re married or intend to be soon:

  1. Is our relationship as loving and affectionate as I would like it to be, emotionally and physically?
  2. What would increase our closeness so that we were both happy?
  3. Do we tend to each others needs and our own, enough, each day and week?
  4. What will happen to our relationship over the next few years if we carry on the way we are right now?
  5. What will our relationship be like three years from now if we both create more emotional and physical closeness to one another?


Take stock of your unique situation. And if you want things to change – the relationship status or yours and your partner’s approach to your relationship issues – think about how your mindset and behaviours need to change in order for you to create the future you want.



* Brown, S. L., Manning, W. D., & Payne, K. K. (2017). Relationship Quality among Cohabiting versus Married Couples. Journal of Family Issues, 38(12), 1730–1753.