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Can You Cohabitate Successfully While Never Knowing This?

Steven Losardo, AMFT

The majority of this blog will review cohabitation data in the U.S. The blog will also provide some essential tools to assist couples in areas the data highlights as problematic.

Since 2001, family attitudes and values related to unmarried cohabitation have been positive (Reid, 2020). In 2010, Pew survey data noted that 7% of adults ages 30-44 living together were cohabiting. In 2019, Horowitz, Graf, and Livingston provide a Pew data report stating from 2013-2017 cohabitation is not only trending but is now more common than marriage (59% to 50%) for adults from ages 18 – 44. Additionally, 65% of those who cohabitate desire the same U.S. legal rights as married couples, including health insurance, inheritance, or tax benefits. Further, 69% of Americans find cohabitation acceptable without plans to marry. Meanwhile, 48% of the American public believe that couples who live together first will increase the opportunity for a successful marriage.

The acceptance of cohabitation shows up in governmental public policy as well. In part, this may explain increases in the living arrangement. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code provides more significant benefits to couples that cohabitate over married ones. One illustration of this is the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Suppose a couple cohabitates and has four children. One partner has three children from another relationship and the other one child. Filing taxes individually and earning less than $50,954, each partner is eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (IRS, 2020). A married couple filing jointly with four children is suitable if earnings are less than $56,844 (IRS, 2020). If each person’s income is $14,550, then cohabiting partners combined total credit is $10,660 (IRS, 2020). If married, with the same earnings, the credit would be $6,660 (IRS, 2020). In this case, cohabitating results in a credit of $4,000 more.

Juxtaposed, the 2019 Pew Survey highlights several drawbacks when comparing cohabitation partners to married couples. In general, adults (ages 18-44) who are in a marriage express higher satisfaction levels in all specific qualities of their relationship (58% to 41%). Some particulars include higher satisfaction with a partner’s parenting, household chore division, how spouses navigate work and personal life balance, and communication. As for sex, married couples say they are more satisfied, 36% to 34% for cohabitation. 

The Pew survey also reveals that at least two-thirds of couples have a great deal of trust in their spouse being faithful to them. Two-thirds also believe their spouse acts in their best interest and is always telling them the truth. In cohabitation, the numbers are lower as 58% believe their partner acts in their best interest, and 52% think their partner is always telling them the truth. Further, 78% of couples in a marriage state that their partner is the person they feel the closest to compared to 55% of cohabiting adults. Finally, 58% of married couples believe their partner handles money responsibly, whereas only 40% of cohabitors.

Several empirically-based studies conclude that cohabitation before marriage can adversely impact subsequent marital quality (Jose, O’Leary, & Moyer, 2010). For these couples, issues show up with communication, compromise, accepting influence, and planning for future developments (Jose, O’Leary, & Moyer, 2010). This data suggests that if these areas of concern are developed and attended to while cohabitating by the couple, it reduces marital quality and dissolution risks. The question becomes how to do this. 

Cohabitation takes on many forms, exceeds the number of marriages, and continues to evolve rapidly (Fincham, et al., 2010). Despite growth plateauing in the past decade, this complex relationship structure is here to stay. The complexity is challenging to unwind.

For example, cohabiters say finances are an essential factor in their decision to live together. Yet, only 40% believe their partner handles money responsibly.  Further, two-thirds of cohabiting adults cite relational issues when their partner or themselves is not financially ready for marriage. Here there seems to be an issue with not understanding warning signs and lapsing into an unhealthy financial cohabitation. Avoiding this scenario can lead to finding a healthier relational fit for cohabitation. However, the data suggests it seems to be also hard to discern the best decision. Relational skills that can be of assistance.

First, having a path to understand pre-commitment and evaluating finances, communication skills, compromise, and accepting influence is exceptionally beneficial. Also, planning for future developments while “Testing” the relationship can foster better relationship quality.  Additionally, cohabitation skills include parenting, household organization, navigating work, and personal life balance in relationships, communication, and sex. As a result, there is a need for relationship education that is very relevant right now. Fincham et al. 2010, note there is compelling evidence that online relationship education for emerging adults improves relational outcomes. Education may be a way to go.

The knowledge/training can help partners avoid lapsing into unhealthy cohabitation decisions. Accurate information can help individuals make wise relational decisions, significantly if public opinion drives relational core beliefs or attitudes. Despite 59% of the population being part of the cohabitation nation, the data confirms marriage results in healthier relationships pretty much across every attribute (Horowitz, Graf, and Livingston). Sometimes, it is better to use data and decide instead of being in the actual statistical evidence. In the end, cohabitation is still an ambiguous relational construction, and the data shows it increases the relational risk of being poorly matched (Fincham et al., 2010). The information also highlights that cohabitation often begins without examination as a non-deliberate process (Fincham et al., 2010).

All that said, we are where we are, and information is lacking. This blog will highlight a few tools to assist with known cohabitation in different contexts. The first exercise provides some questions to help begin financial considerations in the circumstance of “testing the relationship.” Next, there is a check-list to start the evaluation of comprising either before or during cohabitation. The last section provides some general questions to help begin the review of relationship satisfaction. These exercises are just a start and do not cover all the information that one might need. I hope they serve you well as you intentionally enter into 2021!

Some Financial Considerations: If “Testing the Relationship”

  • Review what money means to each of you. Understand the other’s thoughts and feelings about their relationship with money.
  • Review values around combining your finances vs. keeping them separate. 
  • Review spending habits and debt issues. Disclose if you have problems with your best friend’s Visa and Mastercard. Are you willing to be with someone who has credit card debt and help?
  • How do you view other debt, such as student loans?
  • Review goals for savings, spending, and giving.
  • What might working towards a financial plan be like for you? Would you seek professional help?
  • Review the expectations or dreams for future income and expenditures 
  • Develop, implement, test, and review how you budget
  • Do financial behaviors line up with values?

If there is a prenuptial conversation to be had, know this needs discussion. First- if you have one already, refer to your lawyer before doing anything. Do know waiting until you are engaged creates the risk of a financial betrayal and may result in a relationship ending.

Comprise Check List: 

  • We are good at resolving differences.
  • We both have a belief in meeting each other halfway when disagreeing.
  • We usually find our common ground of agreement.
  • We can yield power, and it is not very difficult for either partner.
  • There is give and take in making decisions.
  • We both feel safe to share needs are we cannot compromise.

A Place To Start: General Relationship Satisfaction

  1. What are the five things you expect from your partner?
  2. What do you do when you a partner does not fulfill responsibilities?
  3. What are the five responsibilities you have?
  4. Can you be okay with issues your partner having issues such as navigating outside stressors, anxiety, and depression?
  5. Is there more positivity than negativity in the relationship? The ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict must be about 5:1 for stable relationships (Gottman, 2017).
  6. Does alcohol, marijuana, or pornography adversely impact your relationship? Have you ever asked about porn use to know if you agree on the topic? Including what content is acceptable? Understand each other’s thoughts and feelings about this. 
  7. What is a “safe” relationship with the opposite sex in the context of your relationship? Is there jealousy of any of your friends? Are there still people in your life you dated or have had intimacy, either sexual or emotional? Understand each other’s thoughts and feelings about this. 


Gottman, J.  (2017). Level 1 Clinical training manual: Gottman method couple

therapy. Seattle, WA: The Gottman Institute Inc.

Fincham, F. D., & Cui, M. (Eds.). (2010). Romantic relationships in emerging adulthood.

Cambridge University Press.

Horowitz, J., Graf, N., & Livingston, G. (2019). Marriage and cohabitation in the U.S. Pew

Research. Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved from Retrieved on

December 1, 2020 from


IRS (2020). Retrieved on November 30, 202 from



Reid, Matt. (2020). How to cohabitate. American Sociological Association Contexts, 19 (1), p. 64

  1. ISSN 15365042.

Thornton, A., & YoungDeMarco, L. (2001). Four decades of trends in attitudes toward family

issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of marriage and

family, 63(4), 1009-1037.

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