I am about to say something that many might consider blasphemous — I don’t think couples should live together.
Now, before you cast me as some pro-marriage, uber-conservative who has been reading one too many National Marriage Project (NMP) studies, be assured I am not. At the risk of sounding somewhat Orwellian, let me clarify: Living together is OK for some couples and not for others.
Don’t want to be parents? If there are no kids to deal with, planned or still at home, please — move in and out with whomever you want as often as you want.
It’s also OK for same-sex couples; until other states wise up and follow the lead of Vermont and Massachusetts and allow same-sex marriages, we haven’t given gays and lesbians much of a choice, have we?
It works for people like me, too. As a divorced middle-aged woman who is about to be an empty-nester, shacking up — with someone respected and accepted as part of the family — works.
Finally, cohabiting is fine if you’ve put a ring on it — an engagement ring, that is — or have a wedding date in mind or have been talking marriage (to each other, obviously). Or, if you don’t “need a piece of paper to prove your love,” you at least know that you’re committed to each other.
I can hear the grumbling; “How will I know if we’re compatible or not if we don’t live together?” Easy — you know because you’ve spent enough time together as a couple. If you really don’t know if you can live with his smelly socks in the hallway or her panties hanging in the bathroom, then you either haven’t known each other long enough or you haven’t been paying attention. In either case, you’re just not ready to marry. Please, date some more.
Couples rarely split up over socks and underwear; they split because of affairs, alcohol, addictions and abuse. They split because their expectations of marriage differ. And they split because they never should have been together in the first place — probably because they moved in together to see if they could live with the socks and panties while they were ignoring other, much bigger issues.
So what’s so wrong with living with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Let’s forget the studies pointing out the booze (cohabitors drink more), weight (they’re heavier) and happiness (they’re not quite as happy as married couples but they aren’t more miserable, either), because those aren’t the issues. Nor are the results of the latest NMP study, “Why Marriage Matters,” which predicts doom and gloom for the children of cohabiting couples. The NMP has an agenda; it wants to promote marriage. Still, even a recent and presumably agenda-less Pew Study finds similar results, at least when it comes to cohabiting couples’ economic well-being; they’re poorer, and that puts stress on a relationship. A lot of stress.
As a society, we need to pay attention because there are 12 times as many cohabiting couples today as there were in the 1970s.
The real problem with cohabiting is that many couples who enter into it don’t give it a lot of thought; it’s one of those “just kind of happened” things. You like him, he likes you and a few months later you’re jamming your stuff into his closets. And those are the couples who, if they end up “sliding into marriage,” as research professor and co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver Scott Stanley would call it, are more likely to divorce at some point.
Commitment is a decision. And if cohabitation is being offered as a replacement to marriage — as the Alternatives to Marriage Project and many sociologists and family psychologists see it — then a little more thought about it needs to happen, especially if you know you want to have kids one day.
For Linda Lea Viken, head of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, that would mean a cohabitation agreement. Even if a couple doesn’t end up signing one, at least they’ve been thinking about things like property, spending, saving and — this is a big one — expectations. If you can have unrealistic expectations in a marriage, you can have them living together, too.
Sure, it may seem crazy to see an attorney at the start of a loving relationship, but as anyone who’s been divorced knows love has nothing to do with a breakup; it’s all about who gets what and how much. And, since many couples say they moved in together for economic reasons, money is obviously a huge part of cohabitation. It’s best to be honest about that from the start.
Married or not, a breakup is rarely pretty, and 40 percent of cohabiting hetero couples split within five years. Viken and the AAML are seeing an increase in ugly court battles between cohabiting couples; the law just doesn’t protect them the way a marriage license does. Women tend to suffer more economically after a cohabiting split. And if you have a kid together, well, all you have to do is follow the legal tussles between Halle Barry and baby daddy Gabriel Aubry to know that you don’t have to be married to have the same messy, expensive custody drama when you break up.
Getting back to those expectations, Viken and others point out that when couples decide to marry, their goals are often the same — buy a house, start a family, etc. That isn’t always the case for people moving in together, but those who do have a better chance of making it. Even if a couple hasn’t talked about commitment, many women assume a marriage proposal will come after a certain amount of time of living together. Men, however, hold the power in deciding whether to marry or not. And while many do propose, there aren’t a lot of compelling reasons if they’re already cohabiting; since cohabitation is typically more gender egalitarian than marriage, men don’t have to be the breadwinner — more cohabiting women have jobs than their partners — and he still has someone to clean the house and his clothes (yes, cohabiting women tend to do more of that than the guys). It seems like a pretty sweet deal — for a guy.
Of course, none of this matters if we’re talking about two child-free adults who live together and then split. It’s just a heck of a lot worse if there are kids involved — his kids, her kids, their kids. According to the ATMP, 40 percent of the first babies of single mothers are actually born to cohabiting couples. And some 42 percent of kids will have lived in a cohabiting household before they turn 12 years old.
Still, no one’s pushing for marriage (well, except the NMP), but it you want to live with someone happily and for the long haul you really do need to be committed, especially if you have or want kids. “To me, the biggest issue is commitment not marriage,” says psychologist Joshua Coleman, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. “A lot of people are opting not to marry, but I wonder what is the context in which you have a child.”
For our most famously cohabiting couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the context seems clear. As Jolie said when asked if she and Pitt will grow old together, “Of course; we wouldn’t have six children if we weren’t absolutely sure of that.”
No one can ever definitively know if a relationship will last, whether married or not. But making a conscious decision to start off that way sure helps.