If you want to understand the pitfalls of living together before marriage, you don’t need to look at National Review or Christianity Today. You can consult the New York Times. Well, sort of. Last Sunday, the Real Estate section of the paper featured a story called, “What I Wish I’d Known Before Moving In Together.”
It’s worth reading in order to understand not only the assumptions that young people today have about cohabitation but also how little guidance they get from their elders on the question and how blindly they enter the arrangement.
Anna Goldfarb begins her odyssey of cohabitation after two years of dating her boyfriend, Mike. “I was so focused on the elation of moving in with Mike that I didn’t even consider what would happen if our relationship went down in flames. We had never discussed who would stay in the condo, who would take possession of the Passat we leased together, or which one of us would get to keep our three-legged cat, Eleanor.”
Goldfarb determined that these are legal and financial questions, so she consulted Frederick Hertz, author of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples, who told her, “You can either plan your breakup in a civilized, caring, thoughtful way, or you can try to avoid it and have it be a nasty fight later on.”
Goldfarb and her boyfriend are deeply reluctant to discuss the potential end of their relationship. But since, unlike marriage, cohabitation doesn’t include a vow of “’til death do us part,” this plan obviously makes sense. Cohabitation is really “’til we get sick of each other.” Does it matter that many marriages end in divorce? Of course it does. Plenty of us worry about what would happen if our marriages ended but there is something about the institution of marriage that at least suggests people have the same intentions to begin with.
Cohabitation not only means that a couple’s expectations may be mismatched. (She would like to get married someday; he would like to stop paying two rents. She would like to leave her stuff at his place; he would like her to start taking care of things around the apartment.) The arrangement also does not seem to provoke the same kind of serious response from parents. Goldfarb didn’t get any advice from friends or relatives. Her mother handed her a $100 gift card from Crate & Barrel but said nothing else on the topic. Goldfarb actually resorted to Googling “moving in together” to find out what she should know about this serious step.
She was most worried about things such as whether or not Mike would be annoyed listening to her phone calls or if they would have different cleaning habits. And that makes sense. If a couple is moving in together rather than marrying, it is at least in part for the sake of convenience. If the other person’s small habits are going to drive you around the bend, it’s likely the relationship will prove challenging.
But the biggest problem with cohabitation is not the tension over who has left dirty dishes in the sink. It’s that people are not making decisions about relationships based on the actual relationship; they are making it based on convenience. When you’re dating, if the relationship is not going anywhere, if you’re not planning to have children together or don’t see yourself with this person years from now, you will likely break up. But once you have combined your households, purchased a car together, own a pet, etc., then you’re stuck.
On his blog, Sliding or Deciding, Scott Stanley examines how the way that couples make decisions affects the quality of their relationship and the likelihood of their long-term success. Stanley, a researcher at the University of Denver, argues that the more intentional a couple is about their choices, the better off they are in the long run. As Stanley’s colleague, Galena Rhoades, and Emily Esfahani Smith explained in a piece for The Atlantic, “Couples who slide into cohabitation without formal plans to get married could continue on into marriages that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The problem with cohabitation is inertia.”
This is all the more worrying for Goldfarb and her boyfriend. Even though they do eventually decide to marry after living together, it’s possible that’s not a choice they would have made if they hadn’t moved in together. And that might affect the quality of their relationship. Evidently some things, it seems, are more important than love. Like real estate.