Are two people who decide to live together outside of marriage headed for divorce?
That’s the question I set out to answer, or at least learn more about, a few weeks ago. I stumbled across The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage, a 2012 New York Times article written by a clinical psychologist who works primarily with 20-somethings and has made a healthy living counseling couples and individuals with issues specifically related to cohabitation.
Jay tells the story of one of her clients, a woman named “Jennifer.” Jennifer lived with her husband for four years before they married yet started receiving counseling from Jay when she was considering divorce just one year into marriage.
Jennifer eventually confessed that when she was living with her husband before they got married, before she knew his commitment to her, it felt like she was constantly trying out to be his wife, wondering if this was the month, or even the year, where she would be seen as worthy enough to be a wife. “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife,” she said. “We had all this furniture. We had our dogs and all the same friends. It just made it really, really difficult to break up. Then it was like we got married because we were living together once we got into our 30s.”
Jennifer’s story is heartbreaking, and if we’re not careful we can miss the real issue with co-habitation.
I could see how it’s easy to start living together with someone, especially someone you’re already having sex with.
You’re already staying over at each other’s houses. When you’re both at his place, you use his Internet while your paid-for Internet goes to waste with all your other lonely, underutilized utilities. When you’re both at her place and she wants to invest in some new furniture it’s not the craziest thing for her to ask you what you think. She doesn’t really care but she’s really asking, “Is this furniture eventually going to be our furniture?”
The whole 30-is-the-new-20 culture communicates that your 20’s just don’t really matter that much. And study after study shows that 20-somethings are the most likely to live together outside of marriage. It does matter what you do, all the time, especially in your 20’s. They might be the most formative years of your life because you’re making decisions then that you’ll deal with the rest of your life.
But cohabitation can wreck your 20’s, (or your 30’s, 40’s etc.) because you end up compromising in ways you never intended:
Step 1: You start dating someone.
Step 2: The exciting newness of your new relationship has worn off. Things are honestly going well but you’re not super sure about where the relationship is going long-term so you decide to fast track things, stop the house-hopping and live together. More sex. Less rent. Win-win.
Step 3: The exciting newness of living together has worn off. You look around one day, still unsure about the future of your relationship long-term, but now it’s messy. You think about what it would take to end the relationship. You’d have to find a new place, get new cable/Internet/utilities, etc. You’d have to decide who keeps the dog you adopted together. You’d have to find some, if not all, new friends. If you’re church goers you have to find a new church, small group, etc. If you’re honest with yourself, all that just doesn’t seem worth it.
Step 4: Something gives. Marriage, all of a sudden, doesn’t seem so terrible. Maybe you’re pregnant. Maybe you’re just exhausted at the idea of starting all over with someone new. The thought of doing the whole first date, awkward get to know you, meet the parents routine sounds dreadful. So you get married.
Step 5: Divorce? Maybe. Happy marriage built on a fierce sense of loyalty and covenant commitment to one another? Probably not. You think to yourself, “How did I get here? I would never date my spouse if I was just meeting them now.”
What happened? Cohabitation happened.
If you’ve made it this far in this post you might be familiar with a cohabitation, dating, and marriage survey I created over the weekend. It was taken by hundreds of people and brought about some interesting results. You can see the most recent version of those results here. (The survey is still open and the results are constantly being updated).
Survey Background Facts:
- 75% of the survey responders are female.
- 50% are under the age of 30.
- 34% have lived or are living with someone outside of marriage.
- I intentionally left out comment boxes or religious preferences.
5 Thoughts on Cohabitation
1.) Cohabitation is more simple than some people realize.
Cohabitation is most dangerous for people living with who the studies referred to as a “serial cohabitater.” This person, male or female, has no real desire to get married. They are operating out of a misguided, more sex/less rent attitude and/or they desire some companionship without a deep commitment. Ironically, cohabitation requires a commitment that cohabitation cannot actually provide. This group is full of the people trying to rationalize their decisions when really their situation is simple: get your own place.
2.) Cohabitation is more complex than some people realize.
For some, cohabitation is much more common and increasingly more complex. This group is made up primarily of lower-income populations, particularly uneducated, single mothers. Maybe they made some mistakes in their past, giving up on a dream or college to be with the man they loved. Maybe a teenage pregnancy altered their life forever. No matter how they got there, they have now arrived at a place of need it seems impossible to break out of. They might have multiple kids with multiple partners but for them, cohabitation has become a financial necessity.
My hope for them would be to move in with parents, friends, other family members…basically anyone but a potential sexual partner. It’s this group of people that gets overlooked by these studies and articles. Remember “Jennifer”? She was paying to see a very expensive and highly sought-after therapist to unpack her cohabitation-based problems. No one from this group is able to acquire such help yet their life’s problems can be largely chalked up to cohabitation as well.
3.) There is a very real correlation between couples living together outside of marriage and the success of their future marriages.
An absolutely conclusive study does not exist. Cohabitation does work sometimes, as long as “work” is defined by a lack of divorce instead of faithfulness to the God-ordained covenant of marriage. When cohabitation does “work” it is almost always the same situation: Two people who genuinely care for one another in a particularly selfless way date and eventually move in together. They later get married after living outside of marriage but it turns out that both of them only ever lived with each other before they got married.
My encouragement to them is simple: If you’re ready to move in together, you’re ready for marriage. If you’re not, then you’re not. That’s even more selfless. Cohabitation relationships are harder to dissolve than just dating but much easier to dissolve than marriage. Marriage communicates the ultimate “I love you and I actually mean it.”
Yet the facts are hard to dispute. Cohabitation does make breaking up harder and eventually makes marriage easier…all to someone you may not actually have ever decided to marry if you had never started living together.
4.) Cohabitation requires absolutely zero commitment.
This might be the hardest reality to grasp because perceived commitment is all around you!
- You picked out the furniture TOGETHER.
- You made new friends TOGETHER.
- You got a pet TOGETHER.
- You have a bed TOGETHER.
- Yet there is nothing, no level of mutual trust or lasting commitment keeping one person from waking up one day, deciding to quit, and walk out. People definitely walk out of marriages in similar fashion, but they break real commitments to do so, not perceived ones, not counting the financial and social consequences divorce has.
Men often perceive cohabitation as precious time bought to avoid marriage while women simultaneously think they’ve got their man moving toward marriage.
5.) Co-habitation is incredibly uncomfortable for kids.
If you’re a single and/or divorced parent, you should never have a boyfriend or girlfriend sleepover and you should never live with a partner and force your kids to live in that same environment. It is confusing, unfair, emotional, and incredibly selfish. You put your kids in a very difficult situation to like, trust, and/or ever love your significant other if they do indeed become your spouse one day. Just don’t. If your partner is not willing to marry you, they don’t get that level of access to you. Even if you don’t value yourself enough to deny them that access, value your kids enough to make the right decision.
What are your thoughts on cohabitation? I’d love to hear from you! You can leave a comment below.