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Unwed pairs face highs, lows of cohabitation

In "A Little Bit Married," author Hannah Seligson explores the confusing and frustrating side of long-term relationships. Read an excerpt from chapter four, on the troubles some couples face when it comes to cohabitation.
/ Source: TODAY books

Author Hannah Seligson explores the confusing and frustrating side of long-term relationships. Read an excerpt from chapter four, on the troubles some couples face when it comes to living together.

Playing House
The Cohabitation Commandments

No issue seems to cut closer to the quick of A Little Bit Married than real estate—sharing it, not sharing it, and, sometimes, deciding how to divvy it up. If you’ve decided to forgo the hassle of schlepping your squash gear across town every time you want to spend a night at your boyfriend’s, or believe that it’s a good idea to take your relationship for a domestic spin before you commit to spending the next five decades together, or “We are basically living together already, why not split the rent?,” then you are not alone. These days, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.2 million unmarried couples—one out of ten—live together. And these aren’t only senior citizens who’ve found love again—the twenty-five-to thirty-four-year-olds are also driving the trend. In an interview with the New York Times about how being married now puts you in a minority, Amanda Hawn, twenty-eight, one of the 5.2 million cohabiters, hit on a popular reason why cohabitation has increased 1,000 percent since the 1960s: convenience. She states that, “Owning three toothbrushes and finding that they are always at the wrong house when you are getting ready to go to bed wears on you . . . Moving in together has simplified life.”

Consolidating kitchens, costs, and maybe allaying some fears about walking down the aisle, however, only begins to explain why cohabitation has become the norm. “Normal” actually might be an understatement. You are now in the slim minority of couples if you don’t live together before you tie the knot. Pam Smock, a sociologist at The University of Michigan who has done extensive research on the patterns of cohabiters, observes that, “The sequence, as many young people see it today, is that you move in and then you get married.”

Although living together before marriage is now commonplace, the gravitational pull toward domestication shouldn’t be read as a relationship panacea. This chapter will examine the many dynamics of living together. It will dissect what studies say about cohabitation, looking into the often-referenced cocktail party conversation starter: “Don’t people who live together have higher divorce rates?” You’ll learn the cohabitation commandments and what women, in particular, need to know about moving in, the common arguments for and against living together, and what signs you should look for and questions you should ask before any new closets are built.

What’s both interesting and alarming about cohabitation is that everyone is doing it, but there are surprisingly few resources out there for cohabiters and those considering it. The cohabitation conversation usually gets tacked onto the family values argument about “living in sin.” This chapter will certainly address the downsides of living together before marriage, but the purpose is not to wag a finger or advance some viewpoint about cohabitation. Rather, it’s to present you with the data points so you can make the decision that’s right for you and your relationship. Let’s start by looking at what experts on both sides of the cohabitation fence say about the pros and cons of living together without a marriage license.

Cohabitation by the Numbers
55 percent of opposite-sex cohabiters get married within five years of moving in together.40 percent break up within that same time period. About 10 percent remain in an unmarried relationship five years or longer.About 75 percent of cohabiters say they plan to marry their partners.The majority of couples marrying today have lived together first (53 percent of women’s first marriages are preceded by cohabitation).

Cohabitation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Is living together a good thing for your relationship? A bad thing? Are you more or less likely to get divorced if you live together before marriage? Does moving in with your boyfriend affect the chances of your getting married? Some women interviewed for this book say that they hoped moving in would fast-track the proposal. But the research on that is inconclusive. Researchers, like Smock, say it’s difficult to isolate what effect living together has on your chances of getting married because the majority of people who get married are now co-habiting first. What we do know is that living together is not an automatic divorce sentence for your relationship. Dr. Sharon Sassler, a social demographer at Cornell University who has researched cohabiters extensively, says there is a lot of mythology surrounding cohabitation—the most widely touted being the notion that living together is correlated to higher divorce rates, a correlation she and other experts say is erro-neous. “Those statistics,” she says, “are outdated and drawn from a population whose higher divorce rates have less to do with the fact that they cohabited and more to do with their alternative lifestyle,” referring to a 1970s study that generated the belief. However, more recent studies do signal an alarm bell for a select group: serial cohabiters. Sassler goes on to say that, “Only people who live with multiple partners have higher divorce rates. If you’ve only lived with one person, you have no greater chance of getting divorced than someone who hasn’t.”In fact, there’s evidence that cohabitation might even give your relationship an edge. In a 2008 USA Today article, journalist Sharon Jayson reported that, according to research done by Cornell University sociologist Daniel Lichter, “the odds of divorce among women who married their only cohabiting partner were 28 percent lower than among women who never cohabited before marriage.” The correlation between divorce and cohabitation were driven by multiple cohabiting arrangements. Lichter told USA Today about his study, published in December 2008 in the Journal of Marriage and Family, reiterating that, “Divorce rates for those who cohabit more than once are more than twice as high as for women who cohabited only with their eventual husbands.”

That statistic is only one part of the story. Don’t pack your boxes yet. To get the darker underbelly of cohabitation, it’s important to raise the question: Why are so many people living together before they get married? Is it because they can? The exorbitant cost of rent? Because it’s fun? Those certainly ring true, but the biggest reason is that, these days, couples want to take a test drive—they want to see what it’s like to live with that person before they get married. After all, who wouldn’t want to sample what the rest of their lives might feel and look like? Lindsey, twenty-nine, says this is the logic that drove her to move in with her boyfriend of three-plus years: “I’m pretty healthy and work out a lot, but my boyfriend has gained a lot of weight and is smoking. I wanted to live with him and see how these things play out before I decide to get married.”

Marshall Miller, author of Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple, says this is far and away one of the largest drivers of cohabitation: “It makes a lot of sense why people want to live together. If you are going to be living with someone for the rest of your life, wouldn’t you want to see what that that person is like not just on a date on Saturday night, but on Monday morning? And also how they handle the bigger things in life, like money?”

In fact, the “I must share the same address with someone before I get married” belief has become so widespread that academics started studying whether the reason behind so many co-lease signings actually improves one’s odds for marriage. Living together offers many benefits, ones that can come in the form of a live-in chef, housekeeper, and carpenter. However, the “try before you buy” mentality might be misguided when it comes to strengthening a marriage. Linda Waite, a renowned sociologist at the University of Chicago, who studies the decision to cohabit, the transition from cohabitation to marriage, and the characteristics of cohabiting unions, says the evidence is pretty clear that you can find out what you want to know without living together.

That isn’t stopping legions of people, like Lindsey, twenty-nine, who says with a religious-like zeal, “I want to live with my boyfriend for a couple months before we get engaged.” Her opinion on this issue is firm. Like many of her peers, she wants to know how she and her long-term boyfriend operate as a cohabiting couple before any nuptials take place. Similarly, Blake, thirty, who is now on his second round of playing house, says his decision to live together was made in order to gain insight into the mundane, the everyday rhythms of life with that person: “You learn people’s strengths and weaknesses in a way you can’t simulate when you live apart.” There’s hardly anything outlandish or unreasonable about what Blake, Lindsey, and the millions of other cohabiters give as the reason for moving in. The rub is that it’s misguided to think that sharing real estate will give you a protective shield against divorce. The question is: Are people moving in because they think it will increase their chance of getting married? In a 2006 qualitative study—“Heterosexual Cohabitation in the United States: Motives for Living Together Among Young Men and Women”— Smock found a “substantial gender difference” in terms of expectations and goals. “In brief,” she observes, “women tended to understand cohabitation as involving greater commitment to the marriage than men . . . for men, marriage was not necessarily the goal of cohabitation.” As for the divorce argument, research shows that the opposite might be true. Some say there is actually a thrill crash for cohabiting couples after they’ve made it official. Living together doesn’t always prepare couples for the reality of marriage, which is punctuated by decisions about joint spending, having children, and visiting with in-laws.

So what’s the solution? Some experts, like Smock, say practically living with your partner (translation: keeping your own place but spending a good chunk of time at each other’s apartments) can give you the same insight into the other person’s habits and idiosyncrasies. Melanie, thirty, is engaged to her boyfriend, Greg. She is in the waning population of people her age who say they won’t live together until they get married. Asked if she’s nervous about saying “I do” without officially having moved in, she explains: “You know what it’s going to be like to live with that person by spending nights together and going on vacation. I didn’t think that living together was going to open my eyes to anything.”

The Tumble Effect
Erica, twenty-seven, is a poster-child for how ALBMs often tumble into living arrangements. “We never really discussed it. It wasn’t a formal discussion, really, it just sort of happened,” she says of herself and her boyfriend, who have been living together for three years. Sassler found that the tumble effect is a prevalent subculture among cohabiters. Parsing out what she’s found in her research, Sassler explains, “Couples don’t prepare for moving in together. Very few have talked about it.” And while it’s much more fun to think about what your entertainment center will look like, it’s the mundane stuff—deciding who does laundry and who pays the bills—that are woefully neglected conversation topics. The prevailing outlook among many cohabiters is that they’ll just organically work out a schedule and all the housework and bill paying will magically end up evenly divided. “It’s surprising how little discussion of ‘we-ness’ factors into the moving-in conversation,” says Sassler.  She says the takeaway from her research is that couples need to uncork topics like what if they got pregnant, are they going to split the household expenses evenly, and general expectations surrounding gender roles and sex.

After the decorating high wears off and the initial excitement of “Yay! We live together!” begins to fade, you may come to the startling realization that you are living with a person with whom you’ve neglected to discuss many important issues that affect your day-to-day quality of life and overall happiness. These include questions like who does the dishes, who does the grocery shopping, and who cooks—not to mention how much alone time you each need. Moving in, as many couples point out, is as much a practical, how-you-run-your-household decision as it is a romantic one.

This all sounds so manageable. After all, you don’t have to have a degree in arbitration or be trained to negotiate Palestinian-Israeli peace accords in order to have a discussion about paying the electric bill and cleaning the floors after dinner parties. Although it sounds obvious that these are topics that should be discussed prior to moving in together, the problem is the execution. Couples tend to believe that the household will regulate automatically, but those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. Laissez faire might work on a global scale— though confidence in it as an economic theory is wavering as of late—but on the domestic front experts say it’s not the best strategy. At the bare minimum, consider the following:

How will you split the rent? Will it be down the middle? What happens if one person makes significantly more money than the other? Will you split it proportionally to each of your salaries? What if you break up? Who will move out?

Have you talked about the issues that regulate your quality of life? Meaning, who will be responsible for making sure you don’t live in a pigsty? Will your new digs just feel like “the frat house grows up”? Or will it be a Buddhist monastery with strict rules about quiet?

Those are just the first socks in the hamper.

From the book "A Little Bit Married: How to Know When It's Time to Walk Down the Aisle or Out the Door" by Hannah Seligson. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.