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Living Together, for better or worse?

“Mom, we’re moving in together!” 

Those words from an adult child can provoke a varied reaction, from profound disapproval to delight.  Much depends on these two factors: how you feel about “the” boyfriend or girlfriend, and your own background and beliefs about living together – which my own mother, rest her soul, unsparingly referred to as “shacking up.”

Whatever your take, if your offspring is cohabiting (the term social-scientists prefer), he or she has plenty of company. Estimates are that almost 70 percent of young people live together before a first marriage.  The U.S.Census Bureau reported that  currently 7.5 million opposite-sex couples are sharing a household.

That number has increased so much that in 2009, for the first time in a century, the number of young adults aged 25-34 who have never married surpassed the number who were married, according to another Census report.   Of course, parents of “emerging adults” probably don’t need statistics to verify that marriage, one of the markers of adulthood,  keeps getting pushed back. 

 When a couple decides to move in together, like it or not, parents do get involved.  Adult children typically want a blessing of sorts. And, if and when the relationship goes kaput, it’s often the parents, as a friend pointed out, helping with the move and finding a new place for the bereft child.

 Much research has been done about cohabitation and there are findings that some might find surprising – even counterintuitive. Just over 50 percent of couples who live together for the first time do eventually get married. Yet these marriages are much more likely to end in divorce, especially if one or both partners cohabited “serially” with other people, prior to their relationship.     

 M21 consulted some experts to find out what’s behind these statistics.

One key finding is that men and women have very different attitudes about the pros and cons of living together, according to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.  Most women who move in with a boyfriend do so from the get-go with the “ultimate goal” of  (as Beyonce and women from time immemorial have exhorted) having him “put a ring on it.” The disadvantage of cohabitation, to women, is that they regard the situation as decreasing their “bargaining power” thus effectively delaying marriage.

Men who enter into cohabitation are much less focused on the “Chapel of Love.” According to the survey men said they moved in because they love the woman, want more access to sex and want to “gauge compatibility” before making a long-term commitment. They see the downside of living together as a “perceived loss of freedom.”

Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox is director of one of the world’s leading centers for marriage research, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.  Dr. Wilcox talked about cohabitation to Mothering 21 in a recent phone interview. 

You were not surprised by the census study that showed almost half of young adult have never been married.

The trend has been increasing over four decades, and the recession has made people across the board and class lines more reluctant to move into marriage unless they have their ducks in row. People now are having fewer babies and even divorcing less.  They are risk-averse so even those in a serious relationships view living together as a safer holding pattern rather than transitioning into marriage.

Research by you and others has shown that living together actually is not a good way to “try out” marriage.

People who cohabitate prior to engagement with multiple partners are much more likely to end up divorced and to have conflict and unhappiness. 

Why is that? 

What often happens when couple moves in together they begin a slippery slide into marriage.  The move in to save money, have access to sex, to test the relationship, or just for convenience.  Then they buy a couch or a television or even a house together, and the next logical step seems to be to get married.

 And what’s problematic about that approach?

 They often have never had a serious conversation about shared goals and parenting and religion and working.  Living together is not the same thing as marriage; it’s not the way to learn if someone is going to be a good spouse. It like saying high school and college are the same; they’re similar in some respects but still very different. 

 What are the key different between living together and marriage beyond the obvious?

Money is one.  While many couples will split expense or rent it’s not the same as pooling your resources and making decisions together about your financial future. 

 What improves  chances for a successful marriage when a couple lives  together?

 If cohabitation is with just one person [not serial partners] and there’s mutual dedication and commitment, that often works out just fine. The closer the couple is to marriage [when they move in together], the better they tend to do.

 You note that the success of the relationship often depends on the level of commitment from the guy.

The more fully committed a guy is to a relationship, the more successful the marriage is and the happier the wife is likely to be. Women are more likely to initiate divorce, very often because of a husband’s bad behavior.  If a man has been emotionally committed from the get-go, he is more likely to be motivated to change his behavior if it’s stressing his wife.

 The level of commitment to a relationship is often not the same from the man and the woman. Research shows that men and women often move up a “ladder of commitment” at different speeds.

 Women tend to commit more quickly and the guy doesn’t always follow suit.  That leads to insecurity and conflict that can cloud the relationship.  If the couple waits until they are at least engaged before living together then the public sign of his commitment results in her greater trust and security, which helps their marriage.

 What would you tell a couple to consider before moving in together?

 Fundamentally you need to start marriage off on the right foot and that means a sense of long-term commitment which living together often does not. Also if you break up with the person you are living with it is often harder for both of you to pick up the pieces and enter another serious relationship after living together.  Also it is easier to be objective about a relationship when you are not living together.

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