Test-Drive Marriage

In the olden days of the seventies, back when I was an adolescent, it was, to state the obvious, the aftermath of the sixties; the old rules had changed, new forms evolving, and one of the “truths” floating around our high school hallways, was that marriage was a silly step. Not only was it fine to live together, but it was a wise move; kind of like test-driving an automobile, living together could tell you if you were a truly compatible couple, and set the ground for truly living happily ever after.

It turned out theory was one thing, reality another, and anecdotally I learned from friends back in the day that living together wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. One friend told me that she would recommend to friends that they not do so before getting married, and another older friend of mine (she must have been all of 26 at the time!) described to me how her relationship with her partner changed radically when he went from live-in boyfriend to husband. All these years later, we now know that not only is living together not a way to start a successful marriage, but quite the opposite. Dr. Meg Jay had a thoughtful article on the subject in the most recent Sunday edition of the New York Times.

At 32, one of my clients (I’ll call her Jennifer) had a lavish wine-country wedding. By then, Jennifer and her boyfriend had lived together for more than four years. The event was attended by the couple’s friends, families and two dogs.

When Jennifer started therapy with me less than a year later, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married,” she sobbed. Most disheartening to Jennifer was that she’d tried to do everything right. “My parents got married young so, of course, they got divorced. We lived together! How did this happen?”

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

Part of what we learn from this of course is something about the intractability of human beliefs. If, back in the seventies and eighties my friends were already beginning to suggest that cohabitation wasn’t what is was cracked up to be, we continue to convince ourselves – despite evidence to the contrary – that it’s a road to a successful marriage.

What’s the reason for the statistical trend?

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.

Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

And we all know how hard change can be. Inertia is a frighteningly common reason for people continuing on paths that lead them nowhere, or worse, are actually destructive. One of the saddest things I encounter in my practice is people coming to me for a divorce after a marriage of decades, and they describe to me in detail the disappointments of the first year – or even the first month – of marriage.

It appears that inertia takes on a life of its own in the framework of cohabitation:

Jennifer said she never really felt that her boyfriend was committed to her.  “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.”

I’ve had other clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together. Others want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates. Founding relationships on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage.

The good news?

The unfavorable connection between cohabitation and divorce does seem to be lessening, however, according to a report released last month by the Department of Health and Human Services. More good news is that a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Americans saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage.

This shared and serious view of cohabitation may go a long way toward further attenuating the cohabitation effect because the most recent research suggests that serial cohabitators, couples with differing levels of commitment and those who use cohabitation as a test are most at risk for poor relationship quality and eventual relationship dissolution.

Meaning, if the cohabitation is in fact a conscious step towards marriage, rather than a sliding into some kind of partnership of convenience and comfort, it need not end in a split.

As with most important life-projects, commitment counts.   

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