Romantic relationships are full of big decisions. One decision that’s gonna present itself is A) Do we move in together? and/or B) Do we get married? 59% of adults under the age of 45 have decided to move in together at some point. Then there’s the question: What would change if we got married? Is there a difference between living together and marriage?

Yes.

You want to be on one page about what your relationship is and where it’s going, especially when making big decisions. Understanding the differences between living together and marriage can help you decide what best helps you reach the relationship goals you’re hoping for. Ignoring the differences can lead to lifelong, complicated heartbreak. 

What are some differences between living together and marriage? Why do they matter? 

While some states recognize cohabitation agreements, they don’t provide the same protection as marriage. 

Married partners:

  • Can make medical decisions on their spouse’s behalf 
  • Have legal rights to inherit their spouse’s estate
  • Don’t pay taxes on the financial inheritance they receive from their spouse

Unmarried partners:

  • Need a general power of attorney to make medical decisions for their partner. Otherwise, they may have to defer to immediate family members. 
  • Must be a beneficiary in the will to have inheritance rights (income is taxable)

Health and finances affect almost every couple. You definitely want to clarify what you can and can’t do before you face major decisions. Drama, resentment, and pain can add severe stress if you find out you have less power and control than you thought during traumatic situations. This is especially true if the extended family gets involved. 

Clarity on Relationship Status

There’s a greater chance that couples who live together have different relationship goals. 

One may think they’re testing the relationship to see if they want to marry. The other might say, “Why marry? We’ll just live together.” Another might say, “It’s just convenient for us to live together since we spend so much time together.”

Married couples get a license. This is a formal declaration about the status of the relationship. Marriage locks in legal benefits and lessens potential misunderstandings about the relationship’s direction.

70% percent of married couples say making a formal commitment was a major reason they decided to marry. Though some marriages do end, research shows that married couples report greater relationship satisfaction.

Whether you live together or are married, you make tons of decisions: bills, home purchases, insurance, etc. If one of you thinks the relationship is one thing while the other thinks it’s something else, you have a recipe for disaster. Being on the same page about the relationship’s direction can decrease the chances of a painful break-up. 

Effects of A Break-Up

Divorcing and moving out can both be painful. The path out of marriage is quite different, though. It may seem that you can just walk away if you’re living together. But, what if you’re both on the lease, you’re sharing bills, or you’ve jointly bought furniture? When you’ve essentially joined your finances and lives together, separating it all is difficult. Not to mention that couples often don’t end on good terms. Without a formal agreement, one person can easily end up holding an unfair share of the risks. 

Divorces can be complicated, messy, and, unfortunately, nasty. However, the process works toward fairly dividing everything from finances and property to time with kids. And, it can provide closure: the ability to make decisions final.

How Break-ups Affect Children

You can’t tear kids down the middle and divide them in half. Married couples are the presumed parents when there is a divorce. Custody, visitation, and child support are set as part of the divorce. It can get ugly, but in the end, it can be resolved. 

According to Brookings Research, U.S. children of cohabiting parents are twice as likely to see their parents’ relationship end by age 12. If and when that happens, the child is only presumed to be the birth mother’s child. The father must walk through the process of establishing paternity. This can get even messier given the nature in which many couples end their relationships.

Thinking of living together and marriage as the same can lead to disappointment. Reminds me of the time I ate a sweet potato, thinking it was a regular baked potato. Ignoring the differences can increase the likelihood of a future break-up or divorce and complicated messiness related to finances, possessions, and kids. 

Researcher Scott Stanley encourages couples to make clear decisions on their relationship path instead of simply sliding into relationship situations. It’s important to keep your desired goals in mind — then doing the proper research to make the best decision for you.

Other helpful resources:

Is Living Together Bad for Your Relationship?

5 Things Every Couple Should Know Before They Move In Together

Preparing for Marriage Online | Everything You Need Before “I Do!”

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