Cohabiting as a test of a relationship is a test most couples fail. Galena K. Rhoades has spent more than 20 years studying romantic relationships and their implications, including for kids. She says that her work, and other research, indicates that living together increases the chance that a partnership will fall apart, absent a predetermination that you’re heading toward marriage and a lifetime commitment. As a scholar and clinical psychologist, she believes it helps individuals to make decisions backed by real information, so she says half-jokingly that her inner liberal sometimes takes a backseat to a message that sounds more conservative.

Rhoades is a research professor and director of the Family Research Center at the University of Denver. She also operates a private practice that provides therapy for couples and families, and directs Thriving Families Colorado, a nonprofit she co-founded with an obstetrician nearly a decade ago. The program provides workshops and coaching to help women who are pregnant or recently gave birth and teen moms with communication, parenting and life transitions. One focus of her work is research into what she and colleague Scott Stanley call “sliding vs. deciding” into family formation.

A mother of two, Rhoades describes her own romantic life as “kind of a wild family situation.” She’s in a relationship with her high school prom date — they reconnected 25 years after the big dance. He has two children the same ages as hers. But they also happen to live 1,000 miles apart. Deseret talked to her about commitment, cohabitation and the pitfalls of drifting into important decisions.

Over the last 40 years, more and more people are living together — and breaking up.

Deseret Magazine: Has relationship formation changed?

Galena Rhoades: There have been big changes over the last several decades. I was close to my grandmother. She and my grandfather went to high school together, went to prom together. He served in the military during World War II. Theirs was a traditional story. My mother’s experience was wildly different from theirs, and my own has been different from both. It’s incredible to see such social change in a relatively short period of time that we can’t relate across generations in regard to our relationships, while we can in other ways. 

DM: Why emphasize ‘sliding vs. deciding’?

GR: That’s one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen as our country has become less religious. Religion once provided the prevailing guidelines for what to do in relationships, around sex and marriage or living together. And we just don’t have those standards as much anymore. So people need to make their own decisions about what’s right for them. That may be based on religion or other values, but we just don’t have the guideposts we once had.

DM: Is there cost or benefit to that?

GR: There’s both. I’m a fairly liberal person, so I like the idea of people being able to make their own choices. But they don’t necessarily have the information, the data, the tools or the skills that they need to make decisions that are right for them. So they may repeat things they’ve seen in their own family histories, in our culture or in the media without thinking more deeply. We see this dichotomy where people still see marriage as a big deal and this elevated experience. Yet they slide into living together all the time, even though it brings so many of the same costs or constraints. Yet they don’t think about that as a big decision.

DM: How does living together impact marriage?

GR: People think, well, I want to try living with my partner first because marriage is so important to me. I want to make sure it’s the right choice. Over probably the last 40 years, more and more people are living together — and breaking up. More who are getting married today have had multiple cohabitation partners than, say, 10 or 20 years ago. And among people married as recently as 2010 to 2019, those who live together before making a commitment to get married have higher risk for divorce. 

DM: So having definite plans to marry improves the odds?

GR: More than if you live together without having those plans first. The thinking behind it is, once you move in together, you’ve made it more likely that you will stay together and essentially put yourself on a path toward a longer-term relationship, which may then include marriage. But you haven’t made the psychological commitment to that relationship, which may also put you at risk. If you don’t commit, you’re less likely to follow through.

DM: Like saying you’ll lose 20 pounds but not doing the work?

GR: Exactly right. If you say it more loudly, and tell more people, if you have a commitment to a weight-loss program, you’re more likely to stick with it.

There has been It’s incredible to see such social change in a relatively short period of time that we can’t relate across generations in regard to our relationships

DM: Do cohabiting couples put off having children?

GR: This is the other place where sliding vs. deciding is so important. Most of the people that we work with in my MotherWise program are not married. Many are having a pregnancy that they didn’t intend to have or at least not at this time, or with this person. There’s so much that we can do to just provide education and information for people about the options that they have for themselves around relationships, sex and marriage.

DM: You were right. This could be viewed as a conservative message.

GR: I think of this conversation I had with an acquaintance when I was working on my master’s degree more than 20 years ago. He said, “I’m thinking about moving in with my girlfriend who just graduated from college. I was raised Catholic. So I can’t ask anybody in my family what to do, because they’re just going to tell me it’s wrong. But I don’t understand why. What’s true about it?” If we just follow the guidelines, you’re not going to live together if you’re religious or conservative, and if you’re liberal, you’re going to say, “those rules don’t apply to me.” But what I believe is important is that people take in information and make decisions for themselves.

DM: What are the biggest challenges facing moms in your program?

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GR: We’re working with women who have the fewest resources in our community. They want what’s best for their baby, and for their older children if they have them – such a strong desire to give them better experiences than they’ve had themselves. I like working with people at this stage because it can translate into so many better things to come for them. They may not see that it’s important to get out of an unsafe, scary, threatening, abusive relationship for themselves. But when they see how that relationship is impacting their parenting and their children, that’s a motivator. 

DM: Any last word?

GR: Lives are complicated. A lot of people have unstable housing. One problem with resources or finances can cascade into so many other issues. If you can’t pay the rent on time, you can quickly become homeless, and lose many other resources as well. It can just snowball into so many other problems. But on the other hand, there’s such opportunity working with kids, working with parents during pregnancy, to alter the trajectory of their lives for the better.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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