What Comes Before Marriage

I’m pretty sure the second most disconcerting thing my current therapist has said to me–the first, of course, being when he offered his prayers on my behalf–was his off-handed declaration that I should never live with a man to whom I am not married.

“You’ll never do that again, right?” he asked, when I referenced having lived together with my ex.

“Excuse me?” I responded, fairly dumbstruck.

“It’s just a bad idea,” he said, going on to cite data that men and women who live together first are less likely to stay married.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who would marry someone before living with them,” I declared.

“I know,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

We moved on, and I dismissed his advice the way you might dismiss someone telling you not to spend a thousand dollars on a Gucci dress when you’ve got no way to buy it: it didn’t exactly feel like the most relevant discussion to engage considering my circumstance.

Clearly, I need not feel much personal urgency to consider this question. But I’d like to think that someday I will. And yesterday, it was in the New York Times. Again: my therapist had a point.

The data from this federal study that has just come out is apparently almost eight years old. And it does suggest that couples who live together before they get engaged are less likely to remain married. But it also finds that cohabitation is only getting more common, and the statistical difference isn’t all that great.

I am fascinated, though, by the idea that living with someone before committing to them more seriously could be anything but positive. It goes against common sense, and, in fact, what’s common: as the study shows, it is no longer radical to move in together. Most people think of it as the responsible thing to do. How can you decide that you want to spend your life with someone if you don’t know whether the way they hang their pants is going to drive you insane? (Clearly I have been single a long time; I honestly could not think of a better example.)

I may not be able to tell you why at this moment, but I think we’d all agree that you learn a lot about someone by living with them. So the real question is whether its necessary to learn all of this before you marry them. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that it isn’t. Because after all, no matter how much time you spend with someone, there are going to be things you still don’t know before you get married. Things like how they’re going to look with a receding hairline and–assuming you haven’t had kids and will–what they’re truly going to be like as parents.

I wonder if the real problem is this idea that there is anything such as a perfect mate, and that we expect through living together we’ll be able to recognize whether someone is or isn’t. The reality, of course, is that no one is perfect, or even perfect for you: you can’t ever fully know that someone is going to make an ideal long-term companion. You make a decision based on what you do know about someone and you choose commitment because that’s what you want.

So, is living together necessary in order to make that choice? My therapist, federal researchers, and probably a lot of grandparents say no.

And I sort of get it, I do. But does that mean I’m willing to commit to a lifetime with someone before I know how they manage their closet? And, presumably, other More Important things that I actually care about? I’m not sure.

Fortunately, I think I have time to contemplate.


Filed under Love Life

10 responses to “What Comes Before Marriage

  1. I swear this is not for PR but I have been reading and loving your blog for the past week and the co-author of a book on cohabitation (The Good Girls Guide To Living in Sin) I have to jump in here. Cohabitation IS a good thing. No matter how many “studies” proclaim otherwise. I mean, let’s face it, people who don’t believe in living together before marriage generally don’t believe in divorce either. So a stat indicating that shacker-uppers have a higher proclivity for divorce isn’t a shocker. More than that, a recent study (made popular by fox news) declared that people who live together are more likely to TALK ABOUT divorce, which to my mind is a GOOD THING. TALK is GOOD. Discussion, also good. So a couple who is just quietly miserable because they own a belief system that isn’t always the most liveable do not make for stronger, better or even healthier relationships. Perhaps just longer ones. Thank you for letting me vent. Now keep writing your awesomeness.

    • Thank you for your thoughts!! These are all excellent points that make a lot of sense. I’m glad someone here knows what they’re talking about. So glad you’re enjoying the blog, and regardless of your intentions I would love to check out that book!

  2. Creative Writers at UNM
  3. Megan

    I think the reason has to do with people’s “philosophy” about marriage. If you see marriage as something requiring a trial (i.e. living together first) then it makes sense that more people who lived together first also divorce because they see marriage/living together as something that requires a trial before you’ll pass judgment on its worth. The idea that if you getting married and will be there for each other “for better and for worse” is a different philosophy than “if its worse i don’t want to be with you”. I’m not advocating people stay in destructive relationships to avoid divorce, but I think treating your relationship as something that requires a “trial” can set a dangerous tone for the marriage itself. I think a lot depends on the two people though–a lot of people don’t get married with the “better or worse” philosophy these days. But I think its important to understand your own “marriage philosophy” before you commit to living together or getting married because it might help to avoid pitfalls in the future.

  4. DG

    Or, you could just live in sin like me and JT and live happily ever after.

  5. Courtney

    As previous posters have said, I think it comes down to a philosophy of taking relationships/commitment less seriously. Of course, some people who are very serious about commitment sometimes live together first. But the group of people who WON’T live together first are more likely to be in the group that refuses to see it as a “trial” (for lack of a better word). So that skews the results. It’s the people who self-select into each group, rather than any detrimental effect living together might have on a marriage.

    That said, I have always thought it’s best not to live with someone before you are committed to marriage, if for no other reason than disentangling yourself from a relationship once you’ve moved in together is simply much more difficult (I had one friend who did it and said “never again until I’m engaged” because it was such a mess). Why risk that pain and complication for something you are not committed to?

    And honestly I don’t see it as entirely necessary. I am in a long-term relationship with someone I have never officially lived with. But I have certainly spent enough time sleeping over to know exactly how his closets are kept, his idiosyncrasies about his house, and all of his personality quirks. It’s a de facto living together that doesn’t actually involve giving up your own lease. While there may be some things I would learn after we moved in together that I didn’t already know, I can’t imagine anything that would be a deal breaker.

    Ultimately, as you alluded to, if you have met the guy you want to marry, is how his closets are arranged going to change that? He’s a great guy and the man you love, probably for reasons that have nothing to do with organizational skills. It will always be hard to consolidate two households, and will always be an adjustment when you move in together, but at the end of the day, I think if the relationship wasn’t going to work, it wouldn’t work whether you moved in together or not. You’ll find out anyway, so it’s not worth the drama.

    Two other quick points and then I’m done. First, I’ve heard that sometimes people who live together and find that they get along fine eventually get married just because it’s convenient and there aren’t any obvious problems forcing them to go through a breakup/move-out. Those aren’t the right reasons and those marriages often don’t work in the long run (that may also be affecting the statistics).

    Second, I find men who get their girlfriends to live with them first take MUCH longer to propose, because they no longer feel a sense of urgency. Not all men, and certainly some women don’t care and aren’t in a rush. But I know girls who waited for YEARS. Even though the couples were readily talking about marriage, sometimes even buying homes together, it just took ages to become official. I’ll bet you money many of these couples would have been married much sooner if they hadn’t moved in first. So if you care about getting married within any kind of time frame, I think it can work against you.

    Just my 2 cents.

    ps. man, that was long.

    pps. love the blog 🙂

    • Courtney!! Hi!! Brie told me you’re reading and I’m so glad! Thanks for all your thoughts…I think you might be right on that last point especially, which is depressing! Hope you’re doing well!

  6. Anna

    All right. As a recently married person who lived with her sig-o before marriage I’m going to call shenanigans a little bit on the idea (given in the comments and not by you, E) that people who live together first see it as somewhat of a “trial” and take marriage less seriously. Shenanigans! I moved in with the future hubs BECAUSE I take marriage and commitment seriously. Coming from my parent’s messy ass divorce I knew just what the stakes were and I was damn sure that I wasn’t going to marry someone that I wasn’t completely sure about, and for me living together was essential to that. I don’t think that has to be true for everyone, of course, and I don’t think you HAVE to live with someone before you get married, but I definitely didn’t move in with him because I took things less seriously.

    I do agree with Ms. Linder, however, that discussion is always good. Always always. No matter what the living situation is.

    • Good call Anna – I think you’re right that it is different for everyone and we shouldn’t lose that. I love that the comments on this post are far more informed, insightful and interesting than the post itself. Damn.

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