Cohabitation: You reap what you sow

By Kent R. Olney, Ph.D.

Have you ever experienced buyer’s remorse? In other words, have you ever bought a product – a computer, a car, a camera – only to regret making the wrong decision? More often than not, that’s what happens when an unmarried couple lives together. We call it “cohabitation,” and the result is typically buyer’s remorse.

Reasons People Cohabit

People cohabit for two primary reasons. The first reason is to test a romantic relationship. Two people claim to be in love, but are uncertain whether to marry. Thus, they decide to live together as a trial run, hoping to determine their compatibility or fit for becoming marriage partners.

The second reason people may cohabit is because they need or desire a roommate, usually for financial or companionship purposes.

The cohabiters are drawn together by pragmatic, rather than romantic, interests. Regardless of the reason, however, the ultimate outcome of cohabitation is usually disappointment.

Can We Practice?

In the first scenario, the two individuals think that “practicing” living together will improve their chances of success. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Commitment and permanence – the twin characteristics of a healthy marriage – cannot be practiced.

Cohabitation is based on a precarious foundation that emphasizes caution rather than commitment. One or both of the partners suggest: “Let’s see if this works. If it does, we’ll continue the relationship. If it doesn’t, we’ll split.”

When that is the basis for a relationship, is it any wonder that cohabiting couples who later marry are much more likely to divorce than those who do not cohabit prior to marriage? Cohabitation actually increases the likelihood of a later failed relationship; it sabotages marriage.

Cohabitation and Temptation

In the second scenario, the couple, or group of co-ed friends, enter the arrangement without expressed romantic feelings. Consequently, some assume this to be a healthier and safer situation. But is it?

The decision to cohabit in this situation reveals an inadequate and naïve understanding of human nature in at least two ways.

First, it fails to take into account the nature and power of temptation, especially among males. Sex is a dominant focus for most males, hardwired in their brains. Therefore, seeing a female roommate stretched out on the couch at the end of a day, or imagining her as the shower runs in the bathroom, or watching a movie together on a quiet evening are all likely to increase sexual desire in a male.

Why would a person, particularly a professing Christian, knowingly subject himself or herself to such temptation? Jesus wisely advised us to pray: “And lead us not into temptation” (Matt. 6:13). Can an individual honestly pray as Jesus taught while simultaneously living in such an environment?

The Nature of Relationships

Second, cohabitation fails to understand the nature and progression of relationships.

A relationship typically moves in one of two directions – either it will flourish and grow (i.e., the individuals will gain respect and admiration for one another) or it will deteriorate and fade (i.e., the individuals will become annoyed with or disinterested in the other).

If the latter possibility occurs, the cohabiters will probably look to end the arrangement and regret their initial decision to move in together.

Buyer’s Remorse

If the cohabiting relationship seems to thrive, there are two options. The cohabiters might become lovers, now testing their relationship by practicing a shared life together.

Research suggests the results of such arrangements are not promising when it comes to future stability. On the other hand, they might simply continue growing as housemates who respect and honor the other, eventually move on and marry someone else, and discover they have unknowingly undermined their chances of a successful marriage.

Why is that the case? Well, down the road, whenever a problem occurs with a spouse there will be an automatic comparison with the former cohabiter. For example, if a husband fails to clean up his mess, or a wife fails to pay a bill on time, the spouse will longingly remember the earlier roommate who acted more respectfully and responsibly.

During tough times in a marriage the haunting question will be: Why didn’t I pursue the person with whom I formerly lived? The regret and misery of comparison will plague the marriage.

Unfortunately, this misery even leads some to contact a former partner for advice, encouragement, or to share happier memories. The result is that cohabitation becomes a barrier to building a healthy marriage free of baggage.

So what’s my recommendation? Don’t move in until you have exchanged wedding vows. Why take the risk of complicating what God designed to be a unique, sacred, and mutually-beneficial relationship?

Commitment and permanence are the twin goals of marriage. You can’t practice them, but you can produce them.

It’s the only way to avoid buyer’s remorse.

Dr. Olney is a professor of sociology and can be contacted at


  1. Why would a same sex roommate not have the same effect? “My husband never vacuums. When I shared an apartment with Suzie, she always did half the housework. Marriage sucks!”

  2. So basically, if we find out that cohabiting is actually healthy for a relationship, then the argument is flipped on its head? What if cohabiting works for you personally, regardless of the statistics? And can’t “buyer’s remorse” emerge in any marriage, regardless of the prior circumstances? What then? A consequentialist argument against cohabiting does nothing for me, as the consequences in any circumstance can turn out badly. Besides, I find likening a marriage or any relationship to purchasing a product such as a car utterly dehumanizing. I personally don’t view my girlfriend as a product that I would have buyer’s remorse about. Maybe a better analogy could be used…

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