Dating and Mate Selection — 05 September 2004
Should we live together before marriage?

According to the U.S. Census bureau in the year 2000,
9.7 million unmarried American heterosexuals were living together. This also represents a 72% increase since 1990. Since this choice is met with mixed social reactions and poor research predictions, why are so many young people attracted to this option versus marriage?

The reasons for cohabiting before marriage are many. Here are a few of them and how they stand the tests of research.

Some couples believe that living together will be a trial period to check their comfort with each other on a day to day living, so that they could reduce the chance of divorce. Statistics indicate that this reason is flawed because couples who live together are more likely to divorce than those who live separately prior to marriage.

Other couples move in together for economic reasons to avoid duplicating housing and living costs. They feel that they can establish a partnership of equal financial contribution. This logical thought is also unsupported by the evidence. Research finds that most commonly women who cohabit contribute 70% of the income and do most of the household chores as well.

Some pairs feel that the institution of marriage is limiting the freedom and autonomy of partners. They believe that living together without legally and ceremonially formalizing their union actually helps them be free and happy. Regrettably, research finds greater anxiety, depression, doubts, insecurities and fears among those who cohabit as compared to those who are married.

For yet others, marriage is an institution endorsed by their parents and society and resisting it feels empowering to them. This reaction is a form of adolescent rebellion that often does not withstand the demands of relationships over time.

Those who feel that cohabiting is a way to avoid making a mistake and needing to go through a painful divorce find that a pattern of living together with various partners, each for a few years, ends up requiring great grief and loss similar to multiple divorces.

Some agree to cohabit as a way to persuade a less committed partner that he or she is a valuable marriage choice. Research indicates that 40% of couples who live together break up before they marry and 40% of them divorce within 10 years of marriage.

The anticipation of unencumbered happiness in living together unmarried is dispelled by evidence that cohabiting women are more unhappy, irritable, worried and suffer from more neurotic disorders than married women.

If all this data is not enough of a commercial for marriage, many studies indicate that married people are healthier, happier, and live longer than their unmarried counterparts.

The reasons that living together is not a good choice for young people is that psychologically, socially, and practically living together is a marriage without a commitment. It obligates the partners to almost all the responsibilities of being together, without the security of a committed companionship for life. This status is particularly hard for women who may feel that they are not sufficiently pleasing to the men for them to commit to marry them.

Religious, social and family pressures tend to isolate those who
do not conform to the prevalent standards. Young couples need
the support of their families and seniors in order to thrive. The absence of it leaves them to rely solely on friends, which is not a sufficiently broad-based support.

The joys of creating a new unit of the nuclear family and the sense of specialness about being publicly recognized as a married couple, are lost when the process occurs without the ceremonial stages. Those who marry after years of cohabiting lose the fresh experience of combining their emotional and physical world at once. They already own the “pots and pans” and the sacredness of the union loses some of its luster.

There are situations in which living together without marriage is a sensible option. Many older couples who have already lived through the first commitment that ended in divorce or death of a spouse may choose to be together without legally combining their assets. They may choose to keep their finances separate for the sake of their children and grandchildren who are the products of their first union.

There are people who are both aversed to marriage, uninterested in being parents, and want to share their lives together. They are not living together prior to marriage, but instead of it. If both share the same view, I have seen these couples live together very happily without the need to formalize their connection.

Certainly many same sex partners (1.2 Million Americans), who do not have the legal privilege of marriage have chosen to live together in long term relationships.

There are other unique circumstances where uniting in marriage may be disadvantageous to one or both partners. Some people may need to give up support payments, health benefits, or housing advantages. Most of these situations are not common for young people.

If you are a young person who is in a relationship and are thinking of cohabiting with your lover, please consider the following:

  • What are the real reasons for this choice? Are they yours, or were you persuaded to agree to it?
  • What is the reaction of your family and community to this choice? Their opinions ARE important even if you do not think so right now.
  • Cohabiting decreases the chances for permanency, not increases them.
  • A way to secure safety and longevity in partnership is by making a good, wholesome decision about mate selection, and committing to love your partner for life- not by “testing it”.
  • Practicing for marriage by cohabiting only makes it less likely to happen.
  • Marriage is a wonderful life event with great joys, don’t squander it by separating the parts.
  • You deserve a definite, not ambivalent commitment of your partner to join your lives together in a public declaration of your love and commitment. Claim it for yourself.

August 22, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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