July 29, 2004 -- The decision to "move in" rarely implies marriage anymore. Couples rarely mention matrimony before getting keys copied, new research suggests.
"Changing ... attitudes toward premarital sex, childbearing, and marriage have helped this shift along," writes Sharon Sassler, PhD, a sociologist at Ohio State University. Her paper appears in the recent issue of the journal Marriage and the Family.
"Indeed, today's young adults may see little reason to justify their decisions to cohabit by affirming their marriage intentions," she writes. "Serious discussions of marriage often did not occur until couples had lived together for lengthy periods, generally 1 to 2 years."
This is partly due to greater opportunities that young adults enjoy today in education, employment, and intimate relationships, she writes. And in this time of rapid social change -- economic ups and downs -- living together helps young people ride out the risks.
But if not marriage, what prompts the decision to move in? Sometimes, it's a sudden change, like employment status. He loses a job and income; he moves into her place. For others, moving in signals commitment; they already spend so much time together, why not?
"Marriage is often implicitly assumed, rightly or not, to be the ultimate goal of cohabitation," Sassler writes. Yet relatively few of these couples ever tie the knot.
Talking to the Couples
To further examine this major move, Sassler interviewed 25 college students -- most in their 20s, some in their 30s. All were heterosexual and had shared living quarters with someone for at least three months -- some up to four years.
Among the students, there were three types. The "accelerated cohabitors" said the transition from romantic involvement to living together occurred quite quickly, before they had been dating for six months. Their relationship was intense from the beginning, they spent much time together, and decided that it couldn't be casual. Looking back, few thought things had progressed too quickly.
The "tentative cohabitors" moved more slowly. They dated more than 6 months before living together and felt very uncertain about making the big move. Their relationships had progressed more slowly overall, compared to the accelerated group.
The "purposeful delayers" dated a year or two before moving in. Nearly all had lived with someone before. This time around, they let the relationship progress more gradually, at its own pace, writes Sassler.
For the vast majority, practical problems -- finances, convenience, housing situation, roommate departures, parent/family problems, and "because they wanted to" -- were the prompts for moving in together.
"Interestingly enough, moving in with a partner as a trial, or a way to determine compatibility for marriage, was seldom mentioned," writes Sassler. "Future relationship goals were generally not discussed prior to moving in ... and discussions about marriage did not become serious for most until after they had cohabited for several years."
Only about one-third had discussed marriage beforehand, she reports. Most of those were purposeful delayers. "Because they were slower to move in together, these couples had more time to assess the strength of their relationship."
Also, those who lived together for about two years were more likely to discuss the future, she writes.
"In many ways, living together represented an advanced stage of dating, often preferable to living with roommates, while also having some advantages over marriage (like freedom)," Sassler writes. "Growing commitment to partners and the relationship seems to develop after moving in together."
SOURCE: Sassler, S. Journal of Marriage and Family, May 2004; vol 491: pp 491-505.