Recent studies suggest that the conventional ‘rules of relationships’ have changed. It seems that couples can cohabitate and still have a chance at a happy, committed marriage. We have become less traditional overall, and this seems to have spilled over to the relationship arena.
So why is it now possible for the old rule, stating that living together before marriage results in relationship disaster, to be rewritten?
What does the research show??
A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics concluded that there’s little difference in marital success between couples that cohabitate before marriage and those that don’t. These findings contradict older research, as well as the common belief, that living together prior to marriage leads to divorce.
To understand what’s really going on here and to know if things have changed, we have to look below the surface. A primary factor at play is that society’s view of cohabitation has shifted. I recall how, throughout much of the United States in the 1980’s, couples who lived together were said to be “living in sin.” These days, there is often criticism of couples that take up residence early on in a relationship, but not all cohabitating couples are lumped into a single category. In fact, in most circles, there is little sigma for those who live together prior to marrying when there is a strong commitment. These couples are often more mature, and they may have a history of divorce. Or they may be younger couples who have dated for several years and plan to have a wedding at some point. Couples who are clearly committed and take time to plan for marriage are often given even more respect than those who rush to the altar. In fact, with the high divorce rate, rushing and even having lavish weddings is viewed with cynicism, as so many young couples end up splitting after a few years.
Another significant shift in societal view is the belief by many that it is normal and healthy to have more than one primary relationship in one’s adult life. For example, some adults see it as natural to raise a family with one spouse and to spend post childrearing and retirement years with another person who may be quite different from one’s first partner. This second long term relationship may or may not involve legal marriage, but the commitment between the partners is often stronger than that of a marriage in early life.
Are there any reasons NOT to move in together before marriage?
There are some very good reasons to not cohabitate with your sweetheart. I frequently hear about couples who have moved in together in order to save money or because a roommate has moved out—these situational factors have nothing to do with commitment to a future together. In many cases, there is no plan for the future and limited discussion of each partner’s intentions for the relationship. This can lead to false conceptions, with one partner thinking there is going to be a long-term commitment and the other seeing it as a temporary situation.
Testing compatibility is another example of a bad reason to move in together. Many couples did this in the past, and it simply doesn’t work. The sense of security that the marriage ceremony brings can result in changes in behavior, even for couples who lived together for years. Research on marital happiness reveals that one of the best predictors of relationship success is strong passion at the onset, which leads to strong commitment and willingness to stick it out when times get tough. A couple that goes in feeling tentative and wanting to test out compatibility is sure to make an exit when problems arise.
What are some common pitfalls of living together before marriage, and are there ways to prevent them from turning into problems??
One common pitfall of living together prior to marriage is finding oneself stuck permanently, when the intention was really just to test the waters. For example, a couple may decide to move in together without much forethought when one or the other needs a roommate or is having financial troubles, and then an unplanned pregnancy arises. Or, the couple may find that themselves having shared debt and property or being cosigners on a lease or even a mortgage. Then, one or the other wants to leave the relationship but cannot do so easily—they often stay when they’d have preferred to separate, because of this kind of situational factor. Before they know it, they’ve made a commitment through circumstance without having made an emotional commitment.
It’s prudent for individuals to proceed cautiously into cohabitation. Think about the commitment you’re making and communicate with your partner about what each of your long range hopes are for the relationship. Make sure you’re on the same page. Don’t let yourself feel pressured or rushed. Remember that it’s always easier to move in together later on once things are more certain than it will be to separate if the relationship does not work out. I often encourage couples to maintain their own residences but to spend as much time in each other’s places as they wish. Keep in mind that the house built on a foundation of sand cannot hold up during a storm, while one built on a foundation of rock is stable and enduring.
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