Want a Healthy Relationship?

Living with a romantic partner without marriage – cohabitation – has become increasingly common.  Almost 18 million U.S. adults were in cohabiting relationships as of 2016, a substantial increase over the past decade.  In fact, moving in together has become a normative step in the courtship process. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, as of 2015 over half of adults under age 45 had ever cohabited with a partner. In this blog, we’ll tackle topics like how quickly – or slowly – couples move in together, how the experience differs for men and women or for the college educated and non-college educated, and how dating – and relationship progression  – has changed in the 21st century. Along the way, we’ll examine the work of experts to distill out great tips for healthy relationships, like the five things you should absolutely discuss before moving in together.

Are you considering moving in with a romantic partner? Presumably, couples move in together because they’re in love and enjoy spending time together. But, we find in our book, Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships that a lot of what leads to successful – or unsuccessful – relationships often takes place well before couples ever share an abode. Compromise and careful planning are important, to be certain.  Equally important, however, is raising a few key topics to discuss, something that surprisingly few couples actually do before pulling out the moving boxes.

First, even though many dread having the “C” talk (for commitment, not cohabitation!), it is essential to understand if both of you are on the same page when it comes to future goals.  Tackle the big picture, perhaps by asking “Where do you see this going?” We’re certainly not saying you need to have a ring on your finger before moving in together.  But surprisingly few couples seem to have discussed what they envision for the future until after they’ve been living together, sometimes for quite a while. A general sense of whether you both want to marry (anyone) one day and whether you see this particular relationship as being a lasting one is important. That’s because couples aren’t always on the same page. If one partner hopes to be engaged within the next year, and the other has no interest in ever getting married, discussing the future could be the best way to avoid heartache.  It is also a good idea to revisit this question periodically after moving in together, in case one or both partners’ views have changed.

Second, while you’re discussing big topics, it’s important to talk about children. If you have them, discuss the role your partner will play in parenting. If you don’t have them, do you each want them? About when do you envision that happening? Many of our college educated couples said they would like to be married for at least a few years to save money, travel, and enjoy the “honeymoon period” before becoming parents, but others may have different timelines in mind.

If avoiding children (for now, anyway) is important to you, be sure to discuss our third topic: contraception. Never, ever assume your partner is using birth control.  If you are ready to live together, you should be able to discuss how your partner feels about pregnancy prevention which methods they are most comfortable with, and whether they are able to afford their preferred method.  It’s crucial to do this in detail rather than just making assumptions about pregnancy avoidance. Cohabitors have more sex than married couples and, as such, are at high risk of conceiving. In talking with cohabitors, we found that the vast majority of the parents we interviewed had not intended to get pregnant.  Their unexpected pregnancies often were the result of miscommunication about birth control, an inability to afford desired methods, or not understanding when to take additional precautions – such as when taking antibiotics. 

Finally, be sure to talk about a final two important topics that impact couples’ satisfaction with the day-to-day: splitting the chores and dividing the bills. Who will do the dishes? Is it really fair to divide the bills equally if one partner earns significantly more than the other? And, who will tackle the most dreaded chore reported by the couples we interviewed – scrubbing the bathroom? While seemingly small, these little details of everyday life can lead to satisfaction or resentment.  In fact, those who are more content with the household division of labor benefit in other ways, such as having a more satisfying love life and greater sexual frequency. One thing is certain.  As with discussing contraception, you have to get specific here. General platitudes like, “We’ll share it equally” or “Each of us will just pick up after ourselves” don’t work, because partners often have very different ideas about what those things mean. In fact, we find that couples who were most satisfied with their divisions of labor were the ones who had the clearest plans in place before moving in together

Communication is key.  Even though many of our tips about what to discuss —  whether and when you want marriage and children, your views on family planning, and how to split household chores and bills – seem obvious, in reality few of the couples we interviewed had explicit conversations about these topics.  Many were drifting along in their relationships on a sea of assumptions. Problems arise when each partner has a different expectation for managing the day-to-day and planning for the future. Some hard conversations now can truly help couples set the stage for more successful relationships once they are sharing a home.



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