moving in

Wonders will never cease! The New York Times has published an article pointing out the risks of cohabitation. Here we were, thinking that there was no downside to contemporary coupling when all the time a slippery slope was opening up.

The popular belief that moving in together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce is simply not borne out by the facts, warns psychologist Meg Jay.

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.

Haven’t we all seen it? Dr Jay cites the case of a client, Jennifer, who lived with her boyfriend for four years and then married. Less than a year later she was looking for a divorce lawyer, dreadfully upset and wondering why the marriage didn’t work. It seems she wanted marriage and, after a few years amassing common property, dogs and friends it was too difficult to break up. Besides, they were then in their early 30s.

That story illustrates the “sliding, not deciding” process that commonly leads to cohabitation in the first place: dating, sleeping over at each other’s place, moving in together because it’s cheaper and more convenient — not because there is a commitment to each other. But set-up and switching costs can be high and it is much more difficult to “slide” out of such a relationship.

Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

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.

Note that last sentence. And this:

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.

Well said. Unfortunately, Dr Jay does not take the next step and say, “Don’t do it!” Instead, she says she is neither for nor against cohabitation, which, she believes, is “here to stay”. In a piece of advice reminiscent of the “safe sex” mantra which came in with the AIDS era, she suggests that young adults can “protect” their cohabitating relationships from the “cohabitation effect”.

It’s important to discuss each person’s motivation and commitment level beforehand and, even better, to view cohabitation as an intentional step toward, rather than a convenient test for, marriage or partnership.

It also makes sense to anticipate and regularly evaluate constraints that may keep you from leaving.

It’s a pity she could not simply make a plug for marriage, neat. But then, maybe she would not get published in the Times.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet