"The common wisdom seems to be that people live together because they're testing the water before marriage. But we didn't have a single person in this study who said that was the reason they moved in together," said Sharon Sassler, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
"Couples may have discussed marriage, or thought about it, but that wasn't the major reason for living together."
Sassler's study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
For the study, Sassler conducted open-ended interviews with 25 New York City residents between the ages of 20 and 33 who lived with a boyfriend or girlfriend for at least three months. The sample included 19 women and six men, all of whom had at least some college experience. As an exploratory study, the sample size is small, but it offers an initial glimpse into the factors that lead people to move in together.
While there have been many large-scale, quantitative studies of couples who lived together, none of them focused on the reasons that prompted the decision to cohabit, Sassler said.
In one such study that Sassler and colleagues published last year, they found that only about 40 percent of cohabiting couples ended up marrying within four to seven years. But the data from that study, and others like it, don't answer the question of what couples are thinking when they decide to live together.
This new study helps to begin answering that question.
"Some couples may eventually decide to marry, but that doesn't happen until they've been together a while," she said. "What we're finding is that people don't move in together thinking that they're preparing for marriage."
The cohabiters fell into three groups, based on how rapidly their relationship progressed. The largest group, which Sassler dubbed the "accelerated cohabiters," said they went from the beginning of a romantic relationship to living together in less than six months. More than half (13) of the respondents fell into this group. For most of them, the main reasons for moving in were convenience and attraction.
A second group, the "tentative cohabiters," were involved with their partners for a longer period - seven months to a year. None of the five people in this group had lived with a romantic partner before, and expressed at least some reservations about moving in together. Most of them said they moved in because of some outside forces, such as one of their previous roommates moving out, or difficulty affording housing.
The last group, the "purposeful delayers," took more than a year to decide to move in together. The seven people in this group tended to cite convenience as the main reason for cohabiting.
"They could have moved in together earlier, but for whatever reason, they weren't comfortable," Sassler said. "They waited until they felt the time was right."
But all three groups were the same in not mentioning marriage as the prime reason for living together.
"We didn't interview couples, so we only heard one side of the story," she said. "But it was clear that if marriage was brought up, it wasn't the main consideration."
Sassler is continuing the study in Columbus. But here she is interviewing couples, so she hears both side of the story. Early results suggest that the findings in New York are not unique, Sassler said. Couples in Columbus are no more likely to mention marriage as the top reason for cohabiting.
The interviews in Columbus also suggest that, as her previous work showed, there is a lot of disagreement among couples about the status of their relationship, and whether they have plans to get married.
Overall, Sassler said the results of her studies suggest there needs to be new thinking about why couples decide to live together.
"Couples tend to move in together relatively quickly, and it doesn't seem they've talked a lot about it beforehand," she said. "A lot of the decision has to do with living situations and not necessarily plans for the future."
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