Repairing Relationships

Building intimacy and joy into your relationships

Does Sliding Into Cohabitation Lock You in?

Is moving in together before marriage a good way to prevent divorce?

University of Virginia Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay, author of "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter- and How to Make the Most of Them Now", started a firestorm this week with her provocative New York Times article "The Downside of Cohabitation Before Marriage".


Dr. Jay  stated that  7.5 million American couples, the majority in the 20s, are cohabitating and two thirds believe that moving in together before marriage was a prophylactic way to avoid future divorce. But Dr. Jay says this is counterintuitive to actual research comparing cohabitating couples with those who wait to live together after commiting to one another in marriage. What she coins  the "cohabitation effect" results in couples who are  less satisfied with their marriages and are more likely to divorce than couples who wait until marriage to live together.

Dr. Jay and researchers have discovered that couples are "sliding, not deciding" into cohabitation. Sliding means that an initial dating relationship acccelerates into a sexual relationship and, after initially just staying over at the partner's place, they gradually added a toothbrush, a change of clothes, personal hygiene items and eventually all their things. Another word for it would be "mission creep." Why go through the walk of shame at 6AM or a long drive home after a night of no sleep when you could just wake up together? Wouldn't It be nice?  Like a swimmer caught in a undertow, the couple finds themselves swept into a relationship much more permanent than they intended.

Dr. Jay reports that the problem is based on two conflicting hidden agendas. Researchers have found that in general women see cohabitation as a step toward marriage. Men see it as a way to enjoy the relationship without having to make any commitment to marriage. Dr. Jay reports that both men and women agree on one thing: that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than their standards for a marriage partner.

 At this point  the second phenomenon, "lock-in", takes center stage. Dr. Jay defines lock-in as "the decreased likelihood to search for or change to another option once an initial investment has been made." Living together decreases costs for both partners who share rent,furniture, utilities, car and food expenses. The couple often develop a coterie of shared friends, neighbors and even pets that bind them together. The painful emotional cost of ending the romance and having to return to the scary dating world instead of having a sure if less than perfect relationship with a lower standard partner at home is prohibitive.  Many just learn to live with a low level of happiness.

Inertia is defined simply as a body at rest stays at rest. It's simply easier for human beings to not expend energy and to stay in the known. Dr. Jay reports of patients who wasted their 20s locked in a weak cohabitating relationship that wouldn't have lasted more than a few months if they weren't living together. She observed that for many, getting married is the next logical life step  after wasting their time in a weak cohabitation in their 20s. This leads to married couples more likely to divorce.

Unfortunately the media of film, music and television have been promoting cohabitation for decades without emphasizing the down side. Dr. Jay advises that we need to enlighten the next generation that cohabitation is not the divorce preventer it is believed to be. Choose wisely before you get your buddies to help you move in. Sliding into cohabitation increases the chances of a man or woman committing to a partner they don't connect with or wasting too much precious time on the disconnect before ending it. 

 Dr. Jay's book can be purchased at

J.R. Bruns, M.D., is co-author of The Tiger Woods Syndrome, a book about repairing relationships.


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