A lot of couples move in together because it makes their lives easier. Maybe they spend so much time together anyways or they have so many sleep overs that their stuff is split between two houses; its just easier to live in one place. Or maybe they are both moving to a new city or state so they decide to get a place together because that’s easier than finding new roommates. For whatever reason it seems like more couples are living together before marriage than before.
It can be a dangerous choice if not thought out properly.
Personally, I’m not for living together. Trust me, I would love it. I’m in a long distance relationship and so badly I would love for my boyfriend to move to New York when he’s done with school. It would be easier for him to move in with me since I already have an apartment and he doesn’t know many people out here, but for me that might be risking too much. Reading “The Cohabitation Effect” chapter from The Defining Decade helped me confirm I’m making the right choice.
“…couples who ‘live together first’ are actually less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than couples who do not. This is what sociologists call the cohabitation effect.” (p. 91)
Living Together is NOT a Test for Marriage
This is a common assumption for many people, young and old. This was true for Jennifer, one of Dr. Meg Jay’s clients. Jennifer was now seeing Dr. Meg Jay because she was getting a divorce after feeling she got into the wrong marriage too quickly. Jennifer and her husband Carter dated and lived together during their twenties. As Jennifer was nearing thirty she saw her other friends marrying and having babies of their own, Jennifer started to worry that Carter would never be serious about a career or their relationship. Jennifer thought living together would be a good test for marriage. With Jennifer and Carter as an example Dr. Meg Jay explains how living together is not a test for marriage…
“They vaguely had the idea of testing their relationship, but they didn’t venture into areas that typically stress marriage: They didn’t pay a mortgage, try to get pregnant, get up in the night with kids, spend holidays with in-laws when they didn’t want to, save for college and retirement, or see each other’s paycheck and credit-card bills.” (p. 93-94)
In the same way, marriage is not a test to see if the other person will get serious about the relationship.
At the very least if you are going to move in with someone you need to have a talk about what that commitment means for your relationship. Too many times couples who have been living together for numerous years feel that the next step is getting married, but too often these marriages quickly fail.
Sliding, Not Deciding
Often couples move in together after a quick decision without a conversation as to what the move will mean for the relationship. This is “what is known as ‘sliding, not deciding.’ Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation…” (p. 92)
Without a conversation couples can have different motivations for moving in together and different opinions on what it means for the severity of the relationship. Research has shown that twentysomething men are motivated to make the move for chances of more sex while women are motivated for chances of increasing love. “But both men and women agree that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than for a spouse.” (p 93)
Isn’t that sad? Why are we lowering our standards? If we’re looking for love and want to be on a path towards marriage shouldn’t we be at least keeping to the same standard?
Couples still slide into moving in together, probably because they are unaware of all these know facts from researches. It seems harmless because so many people are living together. It’s the new norm to live together before marriage or even being engaged. But, unfortunately as couples slide into living together, the time starts sliding as well.
Jennifer recalls how after a couple of years she wondered what her and Carter were still doing…
“Everything about it was fuzzy. That fuzziness ended up being the mot frustrating part. I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife. That made me really insecure. There was a lot of game-playing and arguing. I never felt like he was really committed to me.” (p. 94)
Time slides by and it suddenly feels like you should be married by now. The daunting thirty deadline gets closer. Friends start walking down the aisle. Then more friends are walking down and then baby carriages start appearing. Everyone else is settling down, making you feel behind.
The “lock-in” comes when there is a pressure to get married due to the number of years the couple has lived together and/or age. The problem is because the couples’ lives have become so intertwined it is harder to leave the relationship than he/she thought when first moving in together. When a couple moves in together they underestimate the risk of combining their lives financially because the consequences are in the future; the future possible problems don’t seem as real or complicated until the very real complications hit them in the face.
“Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for other options, or change to another option, once an investment in something has been made.” (p. 96)
The investments are called “setup costs”. The setup costs can be as small as a signature or as big as adopting a pet or splitting costs for all of the furniture. Setup costs, big or small, can lead to a lock-in. Setup costs create an attachment that makes it more difficult to leave later, even if leaving will provide a better option.
This can happen because of the “‘switching costs’… the time, money, or effort it requires to make a chance.” Switching costs are what couples underestimate and are what make it the most difficult to leave. Lets say a couple adopts a dog. When one of them has thoughts about leaving the relationship one starts to wonder, who gets the dog? Or if you have a joint bank account or credit card, how will you get out of that smoothly to support yourself? Couples stay in their live-in relationships because of the uncertainty of how to leave and the fear of what will happen to the things, pets and even friends that “belong” to both couples.
Before long someone is forcing the other down the aisle. The couple is quickly married then most likely divorcing, and leaving is becoming even more complicated than before.
Yes, I will agree that this is not the case for all couples. For example, the cohabitation effect is less likely for couples who move in together after a public engagement. I thin the key here is if you are considering living together, first be sure to have a converstaion. Find out why you want to live together and what it will mean for the relationship. Talk about what you would do if you ran into any of the problems we talked about here or how you could avoid them. Second, be sure to re-evaluate. Having the initial converstation is a good start, but you need to make sure you continue to “check in”. Think on your own to make sure you are happy and have what you want. But also make sure you are always being honest with each other. Revisiting the conversation can be a good thing.
For me, I will continue to stick with my decision to not live together before I am married. I think it is too easy to fall into a lock-in. I also worry that it could ruin a relationship, even if the relationship does not work out romantically, I would hope that we would be able to to stay in each other’s lives. Leaving a live-in relationship seems too messy and might ruin that chance of being friends, instead there could be too much animosity.
What do you think about the cohabitation effect?
- What To Look For in a Husband or Wife
- Dating Down
- Can You Pick Your Career and Your Family?
- From Work to Love
- All my posts on The Defining Decade