science of us

Maybe ‘Should We Live Together’ Is the Wrong Question

Why are we doing this? Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

This week, The Atlantic’s Ashley Fetters explores two recent studies on premarital cohabitation and divorce. One study concludes that cohabitation increases the odds of divorce, while the other concludes the opposite. The two studies even use some of the same data in their analyses, prompting Fetters to speculate that “subjectivity on the part of researchers and the public” may have also affected their conclusions.

Fetters notes two additional drawbacks of attempting to quantify marital quality, one of which is that what makes a marriage last isn’t always what makes it good — religious beliefs, for instance, could keep an otherwise unhappy couple from divorcing. The other is that long-term studies on cohabitation and divorce likely tell us less about what’s true now than what was true decades ago, when the people being studied originally got together. “By the time researchers have enough longitudinal data to know whether one [factor] is meaningfully linked to the other,” she says, “the social norms that shaped the findings will hardly be of use to couples today trying to figure out how cohabitation could affect their relationship.”

Which is liberating but also kind of a bummer. There’s something reassuring about the idea of looking to accumulated marital truth for guidance, even if (especially if?) it’s not what you thought you wanted to hear.

Although there is this: The psychologist Fetters interviews suggests that future research could take into consideration “couples’ intentions” when deciding to move in together. As in, are they doing it more out of convenience (someone’s lease is up, say), or are they deliberately making choices and hitting milestones together as a couple? This “did we slide or decide” conversation is actually a topic The Atlantic covered a few years ago (in a piece based, in turn, on a study done by the psychologist Fetters interviews!). I’d gladly watch a compilation of those conversations.

Maybe ‘Should We Move in Together’ Is the Wrong Question