Cohabitation Break-up

Moving Out & Moving On: Understanding Cohabitation Break-up
By: Shaundi Killpack

Rates of living together without being married—what researchers call cohabitation—have skyrocketed during the last 50 years–over 1,000%. “Marriage is old-fashioned,” we hear. “Everyone is doing it.”  Statistically speaking, lots of people do cohabit. And the media has picked up on the trend. We see cohabiting couples in many of the nation’s most popular television shows, like The Office, Modern Family, New Girl, Friends, Doctor Who, Sienfeld, Bones, How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, etc.

In the past, most viewed cohabitation as a way to “test the waters,”  in hopes of avoiding a bad marriage or an unwanted divorce.  Previously, many cohabiting couples did eventually marry, but this trend is changing.

Research shows that today fewer cohabiting couples intend to marry, and fewer actually do.  Scott Stanley, a leading cohabitation researcher at the University of Denver says that today living together is more like super-dating — “cohabit-dating,” he calls it.  And the percentage of people who live with more than one partner in their lifetime has risen 40%.

Cohabitation has proven to be unstable and usually short lived – the average length is about 18 months. This is why prominent family sociologist Andrew Cherlin calls it “relationship churning.” Many people view cohabitation as a child-free family form.  With this perception in mind, some may find it surprising that nearly half of cohabiting unions have children. Sadly, 64% of cohabiting unions that have a baby dissolve within 5 years. It is possible cohabitation is more often a recipe for break up and instability than it is a means to prevent it.

Breaking up and moving out is a big deal – much bigger than many couples anticipate it to be. While it may be easier in many ways than getting a divorce, it can still create many unforeseen challenges for you and those you live with.

So Will it Affect me Personally?

Most likely. Research shows that cohabitation break-up is often messy and complicated. Besides just sharing children, many cohabiting couples tend to share housing, finances, and other assets together, just like married couples. Here are some statistics to consider:

  • On average, both those who experience divorce and those that experience cohabitation break-up show equal increases in depressive symptoms.
  • However, on average, breaking up a cohabiting relationship is about half as psychologically distressing as a divorce.

So, yes, divorce can be more emotionally challenging than cohabitation break-up. This is logical, because divorce usually occurs after 10-12 years of marriage, while those who live together usually break up in less than two years. But half the pain of divorce is still quite a lot of pain, anxiety, and mental suffering, especially when researchers have found that divorce is one of the most painful life events we experience.

Cohabitation break-up also is associated with increased use of drugs and alcohol abuse and less financial stability. It’s not the easy-come, easy-go kind of thing often portrayed in the media.

And What About Children?

As stated earlier, nearly half of cohabiting unions have children, and these unions are generally unstable relationships. Research suggest, over half of the children whose parents cohabit live in a home with one biological parent, often the mother,  and one non-biological parent. Unfortunately, children in these relationships are facing the consequences of break-ups, often multiple break-ups.

Research shows the best situation for a child is to grow up in a two-parent, married-couple homes. Since cohabitation comes with more risk of family instability, children in these families are prone to have more problems, including higher rates of emotional problems and aggression, lower rates of the finishing high school or college, and more early sexual activity and non-marital child bearing.

So What’s the Point?

A stable two-parent family, with mom and dad committed to each other and their biological children, is the best family structure for emotional, mental, and economic well-being of adults and children.

Cohabitation isn’t the easy-in, easy-out kind of relationship that many think it is. Even without rings, it usually comes with significant strings. Breaking up is hard to do: it is hard on you and it is hard on kids, even when there are no promises of forever.

Think critically before choosing to live with someone before getting married. If you are considering cohabitation, make sure you and your partner are mutually committed to a long-term future together before moving in: these couples are at much less risk for break-up and the challenges associated with it.  If you are living with someone and are rethinking your decision (and especially if there are children involved), think about breaking-up the same way you would think about divorce. It is a big deal. Can you repair the relationship and prevent more family instability? You and your children may have much brighter futures ahead if you and your partner can choose to work it out.

In the world today we need —and especially kids need — more commitment: more “I Do’s” and less “Maybe Later’s”; more thinking about the future and less thinking about the now; as much focus on others as ourselves.

Before you decide to move – move-in, move-out, or move-on – pause. Think about the long-term consequences. Don’t make a habit out of cohabitation: be careful when choosing, and then choose your choice every day. That will bring you, your partner, and your potential children much more lasting happiness.

 For a listing of research that was used for this article, click here.