Testing a Relationship Is Probably the Worst Reason to Cohabit

There are many better ways to test a relationship than to do something that makes it harder to break up before you’ve really figured it all out

“If you are considering whether or not to move in with someone to test the relationship, it’s likely not the wisest thing to do. In fact, it seems to us that many people who are thinking about testing their relationship by cohabiting already know, on some level, what the grade of that test may be; but they are hoping that the answer looks better over time.”


Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation.” That’s the headline and conclusion from a national survey conducted by the Barna Group.1 They surveyed 1,097 adults in April 2016, finding that 65 percent of Americans now approve of cohabiting prior to tying the knot, while 35 percent do not.2 Given that nearly 70 percent of Americans marrying today will cohabit before getting married,3 these findings are not too surprising.

The Barna Group also found that 84 percent of those who support premarital cohabitation do so because it provides a test of compatibility prior to marrying. That will be our main focus in this piece, but first, here are some other findings from the report:

  • Millennials are more likely (72 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than the older generation (36 percent).
  • Those identifying as liberal are more likely (86 percent) to endorse cohabitation prior to marriage than those identifying as conservative (37 percent).
  • Those identifying as more religious, particularly those who report being practicing Christians, are the least likely (41 percent) to endorse cohabiting before marriage while those reporting no faith at all are the most likely to embrace the practice (88 percent).

The survey also asked about behavior, finding that 57 percent of those surveyed had cohabited with a partner outside of marriage at some point. Further, and entirely consistent with what we might expect, older, more conservative, and more traditionally religious respondents were the least likely to report a history of cohabiting compared to the rest of the sample.

The embrace of cohabitation before marriage is sweeping. As Roxanne Stone, editor-in-chief for the Barna Group, explained, “Even a growing number of parents—nearly half of Gen-Xers and Boomers, and more than half of Millennials—want and expect their children to live with a significant other before getting married.”

Cohabitation is here in a big way.

Why People Believe Cohabiting is a Good Idea

The Barna Group found that 84 percent of those who approve of cohabiting before marriage said that it was valuable for testing compatibility. This has been the dominant belief of young adults for 20 years or more. By way of comparison, in a detailed report on attitudes related to family in 2001, sociologists Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco4 (citing findings from the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan) noted that, by the late 1990s, more than three-fifths of high school students in the U.S. endorsed this sentiment: “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.’’ Simply put, most young people believe this.

Furthermore, the Barna Group found that other reasons for valuing premarital cohabitation paled in comparison to testing, with the reason that “it’s convenient/practical” coming in at 9 percent and “cheap rent” coming in at 5 percent (2 percent chose “other).

Reasons Cohabiters Give for (Actually) Moving In Together

From 2007 to 2012, we followed a national sample of 1,294 unmarried young adults (ages 18 to 34) who were in serious romantic relationships, surveying them about their personal lives and relationships for 11 waves.5 This is the Relationship Development Study (RDS), and the sample well represents Americans in that age range.

At the first time point in this longitudinal study, we asked people if they were cohabiting and, if so, their reasons for doing so. Based on prior work in this area,6 we gave people six options for ranking their reasons for moving in with their partners7 (displayed in the accompanying chart). Although the Barna Group showed that most people who endorse cohabiting before marriage believe it is a good idea because it provides a good test of compatibility, that’s not the most common reason people give for actually moving in together.

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