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If you went to a wedding this summer, there's a better-than-even chance that the happy couple was already living together. Today, more than 65 percent of first marriages start out that way. Fifty years ago, it was closer to 10 percent. Cohabitation before marriage, once frowned upon, is now almost a rite of passage, especially for millennials. Those are the young people born between 1980 and 2000. They're more likely to cohabitate than any previous generation. As part of NPR's New Boom series, which is looking at the millennial generation, Connor Donevan reports that while cohabitation is a living arrangement on the rise, it comes with its own particular complications.
CONNOR DONEVAN, BYLINE: Claire Noble and Charlie Sharbel are 27 years old. They live in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C. And since they joined the growing number of couples sharing keys to an apartment, evenings have developed into a comfortable routine. "Monday Night Football's" on the TV, the wine's been uncorked and a salsa is in progress for the chicken baking in the oven.
CLAIRE NOBLE: Do you want to taste this and tell me if it's too hot? More jalapeno, less jalapeno, same?
CHARLIE SHARBEL: Maybe like a half of one more jalapeno.
DONEVAN: And this is a big perk of living together - just getting to spend more time with each other. Here's Charlie Sharbel.
SHARBEL: I get to hug her when she comes home. I get to kiss her goodbye in the morning.
DONEVAN: So there are romantic reasons. But there are other more practical benefits, too - the budget, for example.
SHARBEL: The fact that we both now actually get to save money because we're not spending half of our paychecks on rent.
DONEVAN: And he says he was already spending most nights at her place before he moved in. But their new arrangement has also exposed some points of conflict that they didn't have to deal with before. For example, Charlie Sharbel works in software development and...
SHARBEL: One of the things that I'm sure annoys her to no end and she has expressed discomfort about is that I still spend time on the computer when she comes home.
DONEVAN: And that's pretty typical of the kinds of issues Galena Rhoades sees in her work. She studies cohabitation at the University of Denver and is also a clinical psychologist. In her 10 years of practice, she's seen a significant increase in the number of people coming to her for help with cohabiting relationships. She says they're sandwiched between dating and marriage.
GALENA RHOADES: They face all of the same issues that dating couples face - things about friends and how much time to spend together. But then they also face all of the issues that married couples face - who does what around the house, parenting responsibilities and managing money together.
DONEVAN: But discovering and working through issues is something Claire Noble was hoping for when Charlie Sharbel moved into her apartment in August. She says she would never marry someone she hadn't lived with.
NOBLE: You know, I think that it's so important to really know somebody when you're not in the bubble of, like, you only see me at my best. You only see me when I've dressed up and left my house or even if you spend the night, you leave the next day and I get to do my weird, like, picking my fingernails and staring at my pores in the mirror thing when you're not there.
DONEVAN: But Galena Rhoades, the psychologist, says that can be risky because breaking up is tough when you're living together. She remembers one couple she saw who did decide to part ways but was stuck in a lease together for two months. She helped them divide finances that had been joined and mutual friends that they had.
RHOADES: That's something that people often don't recognize is that ending a cohabiting relationship is very much like getting a divorce.
DONEVAN: And since roughly half of people cohabiting for the first time go on to marry, Rhoades is concerned that eventually a dating couple with issues can become a married couple with issues - potentially even divorce. The research on whether cohabitation increases the risk for divorce is still being debated, but Rhoades and her colleagues have found that couples who move in together before getting engaged or committing to marry are a little more likely to have lower-quality marriages. But she doesn't advise people not to cohabit period. Instead, she says, take the decision seriously. Make sure you're on the same page.
RHOADES: You know, you don't want to wind up in a relationship where, you know, you think you're moving in together because it's a step toward marriage and you're partner's just thinking she lives closer to where I work.
DONEVAN: And Claire Noble and Charlie Sharbel had a big discussion before they moved in, where they talked through exactly what living together meant for them. It also included a contingency plan.
NOBLE: I said to him, look, listen, I want this to work. I want you to move in. I want us to share this place together. But I want to be the name on the lease.
DONEVAN: And Charlie Sharbel went along with that. He's more mobile since she owns most of the furniture. And anyway, they say, they can't imagine a scenario where one of them would be kicked out. But if worst does come to worst, they know who's getting the U-Haul. Connor Donevan, NPR News.
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