Have you ever wondered about those statistics on living together and divorce? Studies consistently show that couples who lived together before marriage have a much higher divorce rate—the latest I read said 50% higher—than couples who didn’t cohabitate.
That has always seemed strange to me. After all, a lot of those couples are living together in an effort to prevent divorce. They figure you can’t really get to know someone until you live with them. So they live with them. They move in together to see if they really want to spend the rest of their lives together, if they can stand the day to day with this person for the rest of their days.
And yet, they divorce at higher rates than those who didn’t “try it out” first.
At first, I figured it was a reflection on the people themselves. I thought that perhaps people who are likely to live together before marriage are the same people who are likely to divorce instead of “sticking it out” when times get tough. Religious people are less likely to cohabitate, and less likely to divorce. So I figured perhaps we were just seeing a contrast between the less religious people and the more religious people.
Not a perfect theory, because I’ve known a lot of good, faithful Catholics who didn’t cohabitate, and who later found themselves in extremely justifiable divorces. But it seemed like a good working hypothesis.
But apparently that isn’t the whole story. It isn’t just that people who are likely to cohabitate are also likely to divorce. Rather, it is the very act of living together that makes for less stable marriages, and more divorce down the line.
The New York Times recently ran an article on “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage.” The author, clinical psychologist Meg Jay, talks about a phenomenon she called “sliding, not deciding.”
Here’s how it goes. A couple starts dating. They start having sex. Soon they’re sleeping over at each others’ places, and they realize it doesn’t make sense to be maintaining two households when one is empty most of the time. So they decide to move in together. They may have a wide variety of motivations at this point. They want to save money. They may or may not be “testing the waters” for marriage. Often, the women sees it as an “audition” or “trial run” for marriage, while the man is more motivated by convenience. Regardless, it is generally true that they are not, at the time they move in together, both convinced that they want to marry each other. They’re still in the “finding out” stage.
But what happens? They make a significant investment in each other. They share an address. They buy furniture together. They may even buy a house together. They get a pet. They present themselves to their neighborhood—and the world—as a “couple.” They mingle their lives, and their assets, to a significant degree. Jay calls these “set-up costs”—physical and emotional costs paid to enter into the cohabitation arrangement.
The problem with “set-up costs” is that they lead to “switching costs” if the relationship doesn’t work out. Breaking up is traumatic enough as it is. The break-up of a sexual relationship is infinitely more traumatic, due to the bonding caused by the hormones released in sexual activity. (More on that later.) Compound that with the additional costs inherent in a living together break-up—having to move out of your home, fight over furniture, create a custody arrangement for the dog. Couples reach a point where they have so much invested in the relationship that it’s easier to stay together than to deal with all of the physical and emotional “switching costs” involved in a break up.
And so, instead of making a good, rational decision about whether or not this is the best person to spend the rest of their lives with, they “slide” into marriage.
But the relationship often isn’t built on a solid foundation. Whatever problems existed in the relationship before marriage continue to grow. Then children come, placing additional pressures on the couple. Small financial problems compound. Over time, the “costs” associated with marrying the wrong person start to outweigh the “costs” of leaving.
Hence the higher divorce rate. It isn’t so much that living together changed what their marital relationship would look like. It’s more that, if they had maintained the objectivity that comes with living apart, they probably wouldn’t have married in the first place.
Look, I know a lot of couples who lived together before the wedding and went on to have fabulous marriages. And I’ve seen more than a couple of train wrecks in which bride and groom didn’t share an address until after the honeymoon.
But the statistics are clear. If you want to increase the likelihood that your vows stick, and that forever really turns out to be forever, don’t terminate your lease just yet.
Sleep in your own bed until you walk down the aisle. It’ll pay huge dividends in the long run.