The Old Cohabitation Question
I was thinking the other day that when it comes to relationships, there’s a subject almost none of us talk about any more: living together before marriage. Remember when this used to be such a controversial topic, a source of huge anxiety for parents and even for many young couples falling in love? Remember when people talked about a couple “living in sin” and really meant it?
Well, today, few people barely raise an eyebrow when they hear about an unmarried couple cohabitating. And why should they? It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of couples in the United States live together before marrying. For most young adults, the idea of marrying without living together first is simply absurd. By living together, they say, they find out if they can share a bathroom every morning without wanting to kill each other. That must be for the good of the relationship, they insist. At the very least, it certainly can’t be bad, right?
Well, hello, look what just arrived on my desk — a couple of studies suggesting that couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married. One national study released this very week found that the likelihood a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first. The Journal of Family Psychology has also published a survey of couples who live together, and it concludes that those who move in with a mate before engagement or marriage report “significantly” lower quality marriages and “a greater potential” for split-ups than other couples.
That survey found that that more than 60 percent of the couples interviewed ranked spending more time together as the number-one reason for moving in, followed by nearly 19 percent who put “it made most sense financially” at the top of their list, and 14 percent ranking “I wanted to test out our relationship before marriage” as the chief reason. The survey actually found some couples who had been living together who literally decided to get married because they have a joint lease or a shared ownership of a pet. A pet!
I don’t tell couples outright that they should avoid living together before marriage, but I do tell them that living together does not exempt them from having the same serious conversations every couple needs to have about marriage. I think the danger of couples living together is that their lives and incomes, (and, yes, their pets) get so intertwined that they go ahead and just sort of slide into marriage, even though one or both of them aren’t sure that’s the best thing to do. They get married because it’s just too much trouble to break up and divide their stuff. Tor me, the real warning sign is when a couple says they need to test their relationship. I mean, come on. If they need to test the relationship, then the chances are pretty good they already know something is not working.
Do you think I’m being too hard-headed about all this? Do you think cohabitating before marriage is a good thing, something we all should accept? I’d like to hear what you think, and I’d like to hear what advice you give to your own kids about living together. I’ll look forward to reading your comments.