I think I’ve met The One. Aaron has asked me to move in with him, in another city, and said then he’ll propose in a year. Where I live now, I have a five-year-old daughter and a job, but for Mr. Right, we’ll move. I read your articles about cohabitation, though, and want to know what you’ve got against living together? Is there a reason I should consider staying where I am?
Congratulations! You may have met your match. And you’ve definitely caught me: Indeed, I’ve got something against living together. Because even though cohabitation is extremely common, research has something against it—for all but two sorts of couples:
—those already engaged to marry each other, and
—those who don’t want to marry each other.
Trouble is, most couples who live together don’t fit either category—especially Scenario B. Much more commonly, men who say, “I want to live together,” mean, “I want to live together.” End statement. Meanwhile, women tend to use those same words as shorthand for, “This is a matrimonial starter-kit.” Yet the longer a couple cohabits, the less likely the guy is to propose (yes, even if he made noises about it before move-in)—and the likelier he’ll be less committed to you later if you do marry.
For the more commitment-minded partner, it’s life on the edge, and not the fun edge. No wonder research shows that cohabiting is literally and highly depressing for many women, especially women with kids. For them, it’s a huge disruption of expectation and need.
What’s the issue? In study after study and culture after culture, cohabitation is not marriage-lite. It is a Different entity, separate and unequal. Here’s what you get with each.
With cohabitation, you get to keep your options open: sexually, economically, personally.
Sexually, cohabiters are the only group getting it on oftener than married couples. And although cohabiters routinely say they expect to give and get marriage-level sexual fidelity, they’re much less likely than the wed to uphold that ideal in their behavior. Many are getting a lot at home, and s’more on the side.
Economically, cohabiters take shelter in themselves instead of sheltering one another—saving money on things like life insurance, health insurance, etc. They usually keep their salaries to themselves, divvying expenses and maintaining separate accounts they can spend from without consulting the other person. They tend to avoid large purchases together or for one another. The time horizon is too short for that; an investment today might prove foolish tomorrow.
Individualism reigns supreme socially, too. Cohabiters spend time where, and with whom they want—and they tend to spend far less of it together than the married.
Finally, they are much freer to leave the relationship—and much likelier to do so.
The watchword of cohabitation is: Freedom.
With marriage, you get to meld your life to your partner’s: sexually, economically, personally.
The married tend to report the first-best sex, and the second-most of it. They’ve invested for life, and are the most faithful group in deed, not just in word. Now and for always, they’re not getting any anywhere else; better make it count at home.
Economically, the married tend to insure one another’s lives, health, children, autos, and their house; they plan, not just for now or years from now, but even for the years when one of them will be widowed. Because marriage provides an endless time horizon, couples usually specialize, dividing labor so one partner focuses most on making money and the other focuses most on homemaking—yes, even today, even when both work for wages. They typically endow one another with most or all of their worldly goods and earnings, in their wills, in their bank, and in their daily lives. And failing to consult their spouse about purchases can lead to Doghouse City, double-quick.
Socially, married people’s time typically belongs to and with their partner except by mutual agreement—for a lifetime, even when times are hard and emotions run high or low.
The watchword of marriage is: Forever.
Still, people—especially female people—sometimes want cohabitation to be a form of, and lead to, marriage. Of course, there are cohabiters who live for Forever, cohabitations that result in good marriages, and marriages that end, or which thrive on Freedom.
But it’s not the way to bet.
And that’s where you are now, Anna: betting. You, like all those who have come before and shall come after you, are a gambler. Life requires it of you. Sans crystal ball, you’re tasked with taking what you know now—about yourself, about life and love, about Aaron—, and throwing the dice at later. You’re charged with nothing less than predicting whether Aaron will be the right partner, not just for you but your daughter, and not just for now but for always. You’ve already got Freedom; you’re tasked with finding Forever.
Which is why my advice is this: You and your child deserve a full commitment, nothing less. Take time to be sure Aaron really is The One, without using cohabitation as a test or tool. His proposal—sans your move-in—is one of the signs he’s it.
Bonus? He’ll be likelier to propose, and likelier to mean it. Forever.
The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources:
Linda J. Waite, leading scientist and expert on marriage and cohabitation, for her extensive overview of sociological and psychological research across cultures and countries regarding the distinctions between marriage and cohabitation. They aren’t the same thing, and marriage changes people.
You can read more about Waite’s work and ideas in her book The Case For Marriage and in an interview with her in Marriage: Just a piece of paper? (pp. 163-166) Edited by Katherine Anderson, Don Browning, Brian Boyer and companion book to the national PBS documentary narrated by Cokie Roberts (2002, University of Chicago Press).
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media, 2013.