Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My thoughts on "The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage."



More than a few people sent me the recent New York Times article - "The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage" - I assume in light of my recent move-in with R (Thanks guys! So sweet of you!).

The piece is organized around the premise that, " 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."

I'd love some numbers around stats like "tend to be" and "less satisfied," and I'd really love to meet the crack team behind the phrase "cohabitation effect," but that's a different war (that I waged not too long ago, actually).

Instead I think I'll employ a different tactic in response to this article: I'll agree with it.

Sure, maybe there is a giant downside to cohabiting before marriage. It does sound likely that, "what researchers call 'sliding, not deciding.' Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation," - would be a major problem. And I can see how it could be very problematic to move in without a conversation about your commitment, your love, and your intentions for the future.

It also makes sense that, "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."

And I know many people who fall into this group: "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."

But to me, those aren't downsides to cohabiting. They are:
  • Foolishly taking a very large step in a relationship without a clear understanding of commitment.
  • See above. Replace "clear understanding of commitment" with "clear understanding of timeline"
  • An unwillingness and fear to exit a bad relationship situation

Those are interesting topics. I'd actually be really interested to read a piece all about why some couples fear discussing matters of commitment or timeline, and I'd really love to read one about why some people stay in bad relationships.

If this article was titled: "Cohabiting Has Major Risks if Done Without Proper Preparation" I would not be writing this blog post. I realize that's way too many words for a headline and not nearly as catchy. I already realize that I'm being a bit harsh. The article does make an effort to present both sides of the argument, and if you're reading carefully it's clear that my point (cohabiting can be bad if you're not prepared, etc.) is the eventual point of the author. Case in point: on the second page the author even goes as far as pointing out this:

"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."

Relationships are difficult, fragile things. They end because of finances, religion, personalities, parenting tactics, deaths in the family, and a whole host of other reasons that I won't depress you by listing. And yes, some/many/lots end because people live together before marriage. But it's not the sheer act of living together that makes these marriage/relationships fail - it's the manner in which that living is done: without proper preparation, without proper communication, and without mutual understanding of all the cohabiting will bring.

It's cool though, New York Times, I'm used to it at this point. My new policy is to read the last three paragraphs of these types of articles before the first three. That's where the writer usually ditches the shock quotes and vague stats in favor of a legitimate statement on the sociology of our times.

Look! Here it is for this one: "Cohabitation is here to stay, and there are things young adults can do to protect their 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."

Carry on.

5 comments:

  1. Agreed. A lot of these issues sound like they emerge from the couple NOT agreeing to what moving in meant for their relationship. Especially if one things it's a step towards marriage and the other things it's just a try-out. Bravo J and congrats to you and R!

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  2. I would never want to marry someone who I'd never lived with first. That's just my opinion, but sharing a living space with someone is so complicated and difficult that, at least for me, it needs to be tried out first!

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  3. Success of relationships on any level boil down to communication and understanding. No matter how much you love someone and are prepared to co-habitate, there will always be small annoyances, times of distance, emotional struggles, etc. But when you maintain open communication, you are more likely to overcome those struggles. Making your relationship a priority is more important than whether or not you lived together first. Humph.

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  4. I don't quite agree. To me, the writer was making the point that Gen-X/Y tends to take cohabitation before marriage as an antidote to divorce, which obviously is a mistake according to the numbers. Since more people are cohabitating before marriage, logically, it would mean that divorce numbers would go down. Yet they don't.

    The point of the author wasn't, in my point of view, to discourage people from cohabitating. It was to discourage people from thinking that cohabitation can help their relationship avoid divorce.

    Instead of focusing on communication, some couples enter cohabitation "kinda randomly". And it's that nonchalant behavior that the author was discussing I think.

    So of course, there aren't any shoulds or shouldn'ts, but in relationships communication is key. Unfortunately many couples prefer the idea of a relationship more than the hard work of a real relationship. The divorce rates are a proof of that.

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  5. Would you consider changing or adding to your blog to cover more subjects like this? I would love to hear your take on getting from single to married especially since it seems like you've successfully made it through the 20-nothing stage to this stage.

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