A Love that Lasts

Cohabitation — the official term for living together — is a hot topic these days in the marriage study field. In early July, researcher Scott Stanley reported that women who are living together with a man and expecting to get married are often disappointed by their partner. It turns out that men who choose to live with a woman first rather than marry her are far less committed to marriage in general and their cohabiting partners in particular than the group of men who commit to marriage without first “testing the relationship out”. This surprising finding, presented at the 2002 Smart Marriages conference in Washington, D.C., to some 1600 marriage educators, researchers and therapists is based on two recently released, nationwide surveys.

Stanley’s findings are consistent with those of another study reported this past June by David Popenoe at the Rutgers Marriage Project that elaborated on the reasons behind the data. He found that men who drift into a marriage as an inevitable next step in a cohabiting arrangement or are responding to pressure from the woman to “make it official” show low commitment to the relationship overall and were both reluctant to get married as well as not as less likely to stay in the marriage over the next 10 years. The new research also shows that among co-habitating couples, 50% marry within five years, 40% break-up and 10% continue living together indefinitely. Considering that the 2000 Census showed that 50-60% of all new marriages involved couples who previously lived together, these findings are stirring up controversy in bedrooms across America.

Reasons Behind the Findings

While these findings are provocative, the authors of the studies are not fully clear about what is driving these changes in attitudes, values and behaviors about marriage. We do know that the national marriage rate (percentage of all individuals getting married) has been falling in recent years as the co-habitation rates have been rising. Couples have also delayed getting married because of extended schooling, a desire to put one’s career first and the need to save for a down payment on a house. Women figure prominently in this new social development due to their desire to delay pregnancy and establish independent lives. Finally, there is no longer any social stigma attached to living together so that couples can consider this option based solely on preference, convenience and other practical realities.

Although cohabitation is not as popular in American as in Europe — where it is clearly seen a viable alternative to marriage — for some Americans it is becoming just that — a more preferred and stable living arrangement. Among those who have been previously divorced, hurt by past marriages or elderly (who have specific financial and custodial arrangements in place), cohabitation appears to be functioning as an alternative to marriage and remarriage. And among the Generation X population, many of whom grew up in divorced families, cohabitation may seem a reasonable next (and extra) step on the commitment continuum from serious dating to engagement. In this way, living together represents a less risky proposition than “taking the leap” that marriage represents for so many.

Half of all couples report living together prior to marriage. Some of these couples are taking the workshop to sort out specific relationship issues before going ahead with the formal engagement. Based on our experience and combined with some data from a small, non-scientific survey we have conducted, a number of interesting developments are emerging that may help couples who are living together gain some clarity about their reasons, options and expectations for themselves and their partners.

Four Types of Cohabiting Couples
Couples who live together seem to fall into one of four sub-groups based on their reasons, intentions and purposes for the living arrangement. When we asked couples to address this question, the profile of these groups began to diverge.

The first group is the “just living together” couple who for a variety of practical reasons are living together in the “here and now” without explicit intentions or plans to marry. This group was by far the largest number of responses we received and reflects some of the practical realities of living in the Bay Area from which the survey population was drawn. This group appears to be younger and more dependent on the financial and practical advantages of cohabitation in terms of sharing rent, finding a nice apartment and spending time together when both are busy building a career or finishing graduate school. It also represents a higher level of commitment than simply dating each other exclusively. The desire to find out who the other person is by seeing them in their everyday lives was a theme voiced by many that preferred this arrangement.

As Emily, a woman in her thirties from the East Bay, put it:

“We both moved to San Francisco and financially, we really didn’t have a choice but live together because the rent was so expensive. We were able to afford an apartment we both liked and had the chance to learn more about each other which ultimately allowed us to feel more comfortable to get married”.

The second group contains those couples who are living together with a commitment to getting married — the so-called “marriage-bound” couples. Typically, these couples begin living together more or less when they announce their engagement. Cohabitation is seen as a natural transition to setting up a home as married spouses in the near future.

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Ken, a Bay Area male in his thirties, describes his thinking with his fiance:

“We had been seriously dating for two years. My partner was being forced out of her old apartment and I was looking for a new roommate. We had already talked about living together and the timing was perfect, so she moved in. We had an explicit understanding, that if she moved in it meant that we were seriously considering marriage and that this was the next step”.

In a finding that will reassure members of this group, one study found “marriage bound” couples had just as good a relationship as married partners and both groups had essentially the same rate of marital success.

The third group is the “marriage alternative” group who regard living together as a preferred alternative to marriage. For this group, their reasons for living together ranged from financial/tax implications to family issues, even health, retirement and personal preferences. Sometimes there is an explicit commitment between these partners to have a long-term stable relationship. However, because there is no official agreement, the research shows that these relationships have a higher rate of break-ups than married, long-term relationships.

The fourth group are living together to “try out” the relationship in consideration of eventually getting married. For this reason, we refer to them as the “marriage test” group. In some cases, couples in this group are buying time — postponing the marriage decision — until some lingering question or reluctance on the part of one or both partners resolves itself. According to the new research, men are more likely to be In these situations, with the women who is more interested in marriage biding her time until her partner makes a decision to propose marriage. Couples in this group may be stuck in a “commitment limbo” with one person being ambivalent while the other waits for them to decide. For others like Tanya and her fiance have specific concerns that they are trying to address:

“Both of our parents have marriages which we do not want for ourselves. We attribute their marriage problems to their naivete and youth at the time they got married. To avoid a similar fate, we wanted to lay everything out and see if we could truly accept and love one another “as is”.

When Cohabitation Becomes A Problem
The real issue for cohabiting couples is to know which of the above four groups you fall into. Problems arise when one partner isn’t clear where they stand or misrepresents their intentions to the other. Echoing the new research, the issue is often the man’s reluctance to step up to a higher level of commitment, based either on unresolved family of origin issues like divorce or parental infidelity or due to the “convenience/low risk” aspect to cohabitation. Men may not see the value to changing something that appears to work so well. Women may feel the men’s confusion or difficulty making a decision holds them hostage. This situation is often driven by the “biological clock” that women in their mid to late thirties face. Waiting around with unclear expectations for what the future relationship may or may not hold is a difficult position to be in.

Elsa, a Bay Area native, describes the dilemma of this situation:

“After two years of living together and several conversations about future plans, it became very tense between us because I was ready for engagement and he wasn’t We tried talking about where we were together, what worked, what didn’t, but these discussions typically turned into arguments. After 4 years of living together we moved out and continued to try to work on our relationship while living apart. We got professional help but after two more years, we finally stopped trying. We were never able to arrive at a set of common goals. In retrospect, living together made it harder to let go of the relationship. Dissolving a relationship is much simpler when living together than married but I am convinced the emotional investment and pain of separation is just as difficult”.

Copyright © 2004 by Drs. Patrick and Michelle Gannon.