Some research says yes. But a new federal government study says the link between cohabitation and divorce isn’t clear.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered data on almost 25,000 men and women during a four-year period ending in 2010.
Couples who lived together before marriage with their first spouse “had about the same probability of marriage survival at 20 years” as those who did not, according to the study released last month.
So is there a consensus that living together before marriage isn’t a bad idea?
Meg Jay, a Virginia clinical psychologist, wrote an article just last week in The New York Times called “The Downside to Cohabitating Before Marriage.”
“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,” she said.
Jay discussed a client who had lived with her boyfriend for four years before marriage. The woman expected their marriage to be rock solid given their experience together. Instead, the marriage unraveled within a year.
Jay, author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, has a theory.
She says many couples begin living together without clearly stated expectations.
“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 marriage,” Jay wrote.
When the couple marries, differing expectations cause discord and divorce, she says.
A woman in cohabitation defends it
Not surprisingly, some supporters of living together before marriage fired back at the psychologist.
Natasha Burton, a twenty-something writer for Huffington Post, says a lack of communication – not living together beforehand – dooms marriages.
“My boyfriend and I moved in together after a year and a half of dating and a serious conversation about our shared goal to marry each other one day,” Burton wrote. “We decided to progress our relationship in stages, and living together first without being engaged was part of that.”
She bristles at the idea that young couples who live together are doing so casually.
“For my boyfriend and I, there’s an altar in the distance, but we’re not rushing toward it,” Burton wrote. “Our relationship is a romance, yes, but it’s also a partnership that we’re committed to build on by commitment and trust.”
Personally, I’d like to hear from her boyfriend. To me, her statement that the two are living together without being engaged is a red flag.
How do we know that her boyfriend sees marriage as the goal if he’s not willing to be engaged?
I can understand couples who move in together after becoming engaged and setting a wedding date. Clearly, both partners have a shared commitment that they’re likely to honor after marriage.
But if you move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend without becoming engaged first, how can you be sure of the other person’s long-term expectations? You can’t.
Meg Jay writes that research shows “standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.”
Think about that statement. If you have low standards for a person you’d live with, why would you suddenly value a commitment to him or her after marriage?
I have no problem with men and women who live together with no expectation of marriage. Hey, they enjoy each other’s company – so be it. But if one partner expects the live-in arrangement to lead to marriage and the other doesn’t (as is often the case), the couple’s relationship is built on miscommunication or deception.
And that’s a recipe for a breakup, regardless of whether the couple marries. My advice: Clarify your relationship by keeping separate places until you at least reach the engagement phase.
Better yet, don’t move in together until after the honeymoon. Marriage, ideally, should be an entirely new phase to the relationship – not a continuation of a murky cohabitation agreement.
Marriage is an enormous commitment that should be weighed heavily by both partners. Living together, by contrast, requires no commitment. How can a relationship started so casually morph into a commitment solid enough to last a lifetime?