“No. Not just no, Heck No!”
Wise Readers, that’s what you felt about a Pete/Tina shack-up, per the recent Folk Wisdom inquiry. Through it, 41 readers anonymously submitted advice about a real couple in their mid-20’s with three years of dating and a desire to move in. But whereas Tina saw cohabiting as Engagement Lite, Pete viewed it more like a car lot—where test driving now can prevent owning a lemon later.
Seventy-five percent of men and 85% of women ages 19-66 (average and modal age 40) envisioned, not a successful test-drive, but a train wreck in the making. The top reason? Pete’s lack of commitment and the couple’s lack of cohesive goals, values and purpose related to that.
Which goes to show that you are Wise Readers, indeed. It takes a lot of commitment to make it for the long haul; apologies to the Beatles and most of the Western World, but love is *not* all you need. As one astute respondent observed, “Testing the waters is a foolish reason to cohabit. The success of a marriage hinges on one idea: Trust. Trust is established when you make a vow to be faithful forever…” Quipped another, “Pete’s reason is odd: Would he want to have a baby to decide if he would make a great father?”
Excellent points. And yet, in our survey, even the majority who advised against a Pete/Tina move-in tended to approve cohabitation generally: “My personal folk wisdom is that living together is a good step before taking the plunge, but Pete’s serious doubts lead me to think it would be a bad idea in this case [emphasis added].”
Which brings us to a deeper question: Is cohabitation helpful in general—for most people on the path to choosing a mate? American behavior and speech Just Say Yes. Gallup recently demonstrated that 62% of 20-somethings believe living together is exactly what Pete hopes it will be: a valid test-drive to minimize divorce risk and enhance later wedded bliss. And it’s a belief many act on; US Census data show that the rate of cohabitation increased over 10x between 1960 and 2000.
But without firm marriage plans at move-in, science flatly disagrees—a fact made more compelling by the liberal bent of many social scientists. Out of 27 scientific sources reviewed for this column, ranging from the 1970’s to now, precisely zero back up today’s cultural support for cohabitation as insurance against divorce and misery. Zero.Although a very few studies show no harm in cohabiting, most find that living together is associated with less—never more—happiness in marriage. And in many studies, the risk of divorce is higher—never lower—following a live-in.
At first, science seems to defy logic here: How could cohabitation not only fail to help—but actually hurt? Commitment—or lack thereof.
First, cohabiters tend to start out with less commitment to Commitment Itself. Psychologist Dr. Larry Kurdek found that heterosexual cohabiters express less commitment to each other than any other group, including straight married couples, committed gay couples, and committed lesbian couples. As renowned sociologist Dr. Linda J. Waite details in her outstanding book, The Case for Marriage —which shattered any ideas I had about Marriage As A Piece Of Paper or My Relationship As My Business And None Of Yours— cohabiters tend to place less value on many different aspects of commitment, including the idea of marriage, sexual fidelity (both to this partner and in general), and financial responsibility for this partner. “For better, for richer, in health, and/or until things get tough” –this could well be their solemn vow.
Second, living together changes the people themselves, creating even less commitment once cohabitation has begun. Because cohabitation’s time horizon and commitment are lesser than marriage from Day 1, cohabiting usually leads its practitioners to not only enter the relationship with less investment, but actually to decrease that investment over time—the opposite of what an enduring, happy union requires.
And the longer and more often they cohabit, the greater the erosion of Commitment To Commitment. Which makes me cringe for the very young woman who wrote, “I am a strong advocate of living with someone before deciding to commit fully (read: marriage). I have lived with two boyfriends and each time, I felt like I learned so much that I never could have known any other way.” Likewise, another respondent, years into unwed living with her kids’ father, no longer expressed high hopes for getting married herself. She advised Pete and Tina avoid living together: “Cohabiting will more than likely NOT lead to marriage, unless it is 10 years and multiple children later…and by that point, why get married, right?” Sadly, one of the things they may be learning is How Not To Fully Commit—the antithesis of what the first woman seemed to want, and an impediment to the lasting happiness I would wish for each of them.
Of course, there are exceptions. Science is great at predicting and explaining what happens most of the time to most of the people, but it’s no crystal ball; even cigarettes “only” kill 6 in 10 users, and biologists are hard-pressed to predict which six. And in theory, heterosexual cohabiters can create exactly the same long-term stability as married folks, just without the paperwork (think Hawn/Russell, or Robbins/Sarandon).
But in reality, the very reason we pay attention to such couples is their stunning rarity. In Real Life, the majority step up or out within two years. And it’s commitment itself—not premarital sexual abstinence or religion—that makes the difference in later marital success: Couples who start out cohabitation with firm plans to marry (not nebulous somedays) do not suffer an increased risk of unhappiness or divorce. They behave like the newlyweds they soon will be—people whose time horizon is endless, and who are therefore free to invest fully in every aspect of their union—for better *and* for worse.
So, Wise Readers—Congratulations. Science agrees with your emphasis on commitment, perhaps taking your ideas farther and suggesting that shacking up is actually a pretty bad deal for all but the most imminently marriage-minded.
But what of your other concern about Pete and Tina’s possible move-in—namely, whether a trial separation is more effective than a trial move-in? And what happened with the real Pete and Tina after they got the information you now have?
You’ll find out soon. And that’s a commitment.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009