Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Should We Live Together?

Cohabitation increases the chance of divorce but helps in other ways.

The author of the New York Times piece “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage” argues with the contention that living with someone before marriage will help you avoid divorce. This doesn’t play out in the research.

Couples who live together before marriage (and even moreso before engagement) divorce more often than those who don’t. This result is consistent enough for researchers to have named it the “cohabitation effect (Jay, 2012).” 

Originally thought to occur because cohabitors are less conventional and more open to divorce, researchers now believe that the effect may be, in part, because of risks inherent in cohabiting. It’s easy to “slide in,” they argue, but harder to “slide out” of living together (Jay, 2012).

It’s cheaper, for one, to share a place than to both get our own places. For another, we might not hold our partners to the same high standards we would a potential spouse before agreeing to engagement. The convenience may be such that the decision requires no big conversation about the future.

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I’ve personally had two experiences of “sliding in” to living together. The first was in college, when my boyfriend spent nearly every night in my dorm room. When my friends and I were looking for another roomate for our townhouse, he was a logical choice because he would have been there all the time anyway. The year after college, we already had experience living together, and rents weren’t cheap in Boston; separate apartments were never a consideration. But we didn’t really get locked in. We broke up that year when the lease ended and we moved to separate places for grad school.

In my later 20s, things were different. I moved in with a boyfriend because of cost and convenience, and stayed with him for 4 years, in part because we lived in a home I owned. Without annual lease renewals or frequent moves, forced renegotiations were moot. In a stable living situation it was extra hard, and extra painful, to ask him to leave. So much so that after he did leave, he told everyone he was going through a divorce (though we had never been married). In this sense, the Times author was right. We did have a harder time sliding out than sliding in.

One problem I have with the piece, though, is that it seems to reduce the value and risk of living together before marriage to the likelihood of divorce. Serial cohabitors have the greatest risk of relationship dissolution, she points out, but my experience is that having this basis of comparison serves a few functions.

For one, now that I’m married I don’t have illusions about how perfect other partners could be. The grass is not greener, it’s just different. I’m absolutely positive that if I traded in my husband’s bad habits and quirks, I’d get a whole other set. I also have a deep sense that living with people is difficult, no matter what, and I’m pretty good at sorting out the problems that are linked to that fact and the problems that transcend it.

Even beyond serial cohabititation, there may be value in living with your partner before marriage. There are fewer of the inevitable surprises that come with marriage, and possibly less disappointment. I don’t really think living together prepared us for marriage, but I do think it cushioned us against some of the stress associated with such a major life change.

The Times piece does point out that, according to recent research, the cohabitation effect is decreasing. But she also praises the fact that, in a 2010 poll, more Americans than ever before indicated that they saw cohabititation as a step toward marriage (Pew Research Center, 2011). I’d argue that cohabiting may have value beyond that.

It seems good to have experience with taking risks on people before you take one as big as a lifetime commitment. Some really great relationships end, just like some really crappy relationships last a lifetime. The author is right, of course, that we should take these things seriously, and have conversations appropriate to the weight of the decision. But we might also be served to value growth and learning and process beyond outcome.

 

References

Copen, C. E., Daniels, K., Vespa, J. & Mosher, W. D. (2012). First marriages in the United States: Data from the 2006-2010 national survey of family growth. National Health Statistics Report, 49, March 22. Accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr049.pdf

Jay, M. (2012). The downside of cohabiting before marriage. The New York Times, April 14. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/the-downside-of-cohabiting-before-marriage.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Pew Research Center (2011). Cohabitation a step toward marriage? January 6, accessed at http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/cohabitation-a-step-towar...

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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