As someone who just moved in with her boyfriend, I’m particularly sensitive to media reports about cohabitation being “bad” for relationships. In fact, as we were discussing the move in the months leading up to it, we talked about this a lot, often sending each other links to studies and articles claiming, essentially, that living together leads to breaking up; specifically, they seem to conclude that cohabitation before marriage leads more often to eventual divorce. We kept saying, “This just doesn’t make sense.” And we weren’t saying that because we were desperate to live in sin. We were saying it because it really, truly doesn’t make sense. Given that marriage usually means living together, why would people who tried it first break up more often? And if this is true, is it necessarily bad?
You have to parse numbers carefully when you’re in the business of extrapolating trends that depend on people’s emotions. “Happiness” studies drive me nutty, because how on earth do you measure that, and love studies aren’t far behind on my list of suspicious phenomena. But I also see the value in studying our pairing and mating behaviors as a people. So. In one of the offending articles, The New York Times‘ “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” we learn that cohabitation has increased by 1,500 percent in the last 50 years. No big surprise. The majority of people now in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, with more than half of marriages preceded by living together. The problem, psychologist Meg Jay argues in the piece, is that many young people see cohabitation as a test for marriage. What ends up happening is that often, one partner is still checking out the merchandise at this phase, while the other sees it as a commitment to buy. Then momentum pulls them into purchasing anyway, like a pushy salesman; the next thing you know, one of them wants a refund.
Sure. That could definitely be part of the problem. But this is one of my biggest quarrels with the way we approach marriage today: If we see marriage as a goal, and/or a necessary life stage, we lose sight of everything except the end game. We want to check marriage off on our to-do list and move on. We have career goals to attend to, dammit, and dating is so distracting! This leads both partners in the above scenario down the aisle, whether they’re ready or not. The reticent partner thinks, Oh, well, I’ll have to do this sooner or later. The anxious partner thinks, Yay! I won!
I’m not saying that a few days of cohabitation has suddenly turned my boyfriend and I into experts on long-term commitment. But I was in a decade-long relationship in the past, one that included cohabitation and engagement before ending, and in the end I think this helped me. Namely, I was scared shitless of commitment. My boyfriend had his own reservations, as people in New York City in their 30s often do. And I’m so, so glad. We put off moving in together for two and a half years, and started out saying we might never live together. As a result, when we decided to make the move, we did it because we really, truly wanted to. We knew it would make our lives together better. For more practical reasons, we took the extra step of becoming legal domestic partners — we wanted rights to each others’ health insurance, life-and-death decisions, and whatnot. We wouldn’t have done that either, though, if it wasn’t motivated by a deep desire to be legally bound. We took every step here because we felt it absolutely essential to our lives and our relationship, rather than because of some pre-ordained schedule. Because we’d said we may never do these things, we were forced to talk about them (and talk, and talk). In that New York Times piece, Jay makes the point that the breakdown is really in communication. And she’s right. Yes, I believe our commitmentphobia saved our relationship.
None of this means we’ll never, ever break up. But I’ve never been convinced that divorce meant failure. That seems like the flipside of the fallacy that marriage is a goal. No one can stop human beings from growing apart. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I even wonder if the reason couples who cohabitate before marriage break up more often than those who don’t is because most relationships simply have an expiration date. Maybe those couples were going to be together for, say, seven years, period, whether or not they put a ring on it a couple of years in. I’m no statistician, so who knows? But then again, neither are most of those telling us cohabitation is “bad.”