As Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley documented in a report for the National Marriage Project last year, couples’ relationship history prior to marriage has implications for the state of their relationship down the road. Looking at 418 Americans who married over the course of the five-year Relationship Development Survey, they found (among other things) that individuals who said their relationship with their spouse did not begin as a hook-up reported higher marital quality, on average, than those who said the opposite.
In asking respondents about the very early stages of their relationship, the Relationship Development Survey was a rarity: Most surveys (and thus most published research) examining the stability and quality of long-term relationships do not look any further back in a couple’s joint history than the date the partners moved in together.
A study recently published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Demographic Research suggests that ignoring couples’ pre-cohabitation relationship in this way is a mistake. Christine Schnor used data from the German Family Panel on the relationship histories of thousands of men and women born between 1971 and 1973 or 1981 and 1983 to examine how the amount of time partners spend in separate households (at the beginning of their relationship) is linked to their chances of sticking together over the following years, whether in marriage or outside it.
You might guess that dating for a longer period prior to cohabiting is associated with greater relationship stability. As Schnor hypothesized:
Those who take the time to gather information about a potential domestic partner should have much better prospects of union success than those who move in together fairly quickly. Partners who discover that they are not well matched are less likely to form a household, and will presumably end the partnership… Thus, high separation rates lead to a weeding-out of non-compatible couples. With longer partnership duration, partners who continue living apart together not only get to know each other better but also become increasingly and positively selected. This process should enhance the stability of the union after household formation.
However, a very long period of dating without moving in together could be a red flag: “Partners who rapidly move in together may be strongly convinced that the relationship will last, while partners who hesitate to move in together may have more doubts about the stability of the relationship, and thus feel less committed to the partnership.” On this point Schnor cites research finding that couples who cohabit for more than two years prior to marrying face a higher divorce risk, which is attributed to such couples’ lower degree of commitment. (Perhaps they were “sliding” into marriage rather than “deciding” to enter it.)
The relationship histories of the German respondents revealed that, consistent with the first hypothesis, couples who began living together soon after they started dating were more likely to break up than those who spent more time as non-coresidential partners. Couples who moved in together within a year of starting to date were the most likely to break up; couples at the other end of the spectrum, who were together for five years or more prior to forming a household, exhibited the greatest stability.
Additionally, being older at the time of partnership formation and marrying prior to household formation were linked to greater stability, while a “higher partnership order” (having more previous partners) was linked to a higher likelihood of breaking up. (Incorporating a range of control variables—like individual respondents’ educational, religious, and family background, partnership history, and age at partnership formation, as well as whether the respondent and their partner got married before moving in together and whether they had a child at the time of household formation—had little effect on these findings.)
In short, putting off the day that you and a new partner share a household shouldn’t hurt your long-term prospects. Better to learn more about one another and get some idea of your long-term compatibility prior to living under one roof. After all, if you turn out to be incompatible, breaking up is far easier if it doesn’t require breaking a lease.