couple

To Cohabit or Not To Cohabit

At the close of a year online magazines will often post lists of Hollywood’s best and brightest who have married, divorced, reproduced, dated, or broken up over the past year. This year was no different and I found myself scrolling through pictures of seventy-odd marriages that happened in 2013. I got halfway through when I started noticing a trend. Every other description said something like: “So-and-so wed his long-time girlfriend” or “She and her partner of twenty-seven years made it official” or “the couple, who have been together three years and have two children, finally married.” It seemed as if every couple was cohabiting for years before they got married. One star said that he was “pretty committed” to his fiancé so why not get married. Another couple held a bash that looked very much like a wedding, but nobody was quite sure if, in fact, it was.

The issue of premarital cohabitation isn’t really an issue anymore. At least, it’s not one that anybody questions. Living together with someone you love seems to be the next step after dating and before marriage. I mean, who would purchase a pair of pants without trying them on? Isn’t it irresponsible not to “try out” a partner before locking yourself in with a wedding? Doing it any other way has got to have divorce written all over it, right?

Hollywood’s track record doesn’t inspire much confidence in that train of thought.

One of my blog’s most popular posts by far is entitled “How I met my Husband.” It has double the hits that our second most popular post has. Why? I suspect it’s not that the story is so darn interesting but that women search out “How I Met My Husband” articles specifically because they are deeply interested in relationships. I know I am. We eat, sleep, and breathe them. We talk, think, plan, and pour ourselves out to the last drop for others and so we love hearing about who got together and why and how. We all love a good, true, and beautiful love story: one that involves sacrifice, security, and longevity. We want to see that it’s out there, because we long for it too.

Stasi Eldredge longed for that kind of love ever since she could remember. In her book Captivating she relates:

Like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Maid Marian, or like Cora in the Last of the Mohicans, I wanted to be the heroine and have my hero come for me. … I simply loved feeling wanted and fought for. This desire is set deep in the heart of every little girl—and every woman. Yet most of us are ashamed of it. We downplay it. We pretend that it is less than it is. We are women of the twenty-first century after all—strong, independent, and capable, thank you very much. Uh-huh … and who is buying all these romance novels? … A little girl longs for romance, to be seen and desired, to be sought after and fought for.

It is deep-seated, this longing to be wanted and fought for, and the fact that women feel this way can be seen everywhere in our world, if we’re paying attention. The other day I heard a popular song from the 80s called Paradise by the Dashboard Light (sung by a band called Meatloaf). It’s about a guy desiring to be physically intimate with a lady when she stops him in his tracks and says:

I gotta know right now, before we go any further,
Do you love me? Will you love me forever?
Do you need me? Will you never leave me?
Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?
Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?
I gotta know right now, before we go any further,
Will you love me? Will you love me forever?

In the song, the guy tries to put her off by saying, “let me sleep on it before I tell you” and when she won’t accept that, he tells her yes, I will love you until the end of time. Next he prays for the end of time to come soon because he can’t stand her. He didn’t love her; he just wanted to have some fun with her.

The song hit me hard. This is what women are about, what they crave. They need the security of knowing that their man is choosing to be with them specifically and personally and that he’s in it for the long haul. Because things are going to get tough and she knows it. She is going to be disfigured by the seasons of her life: by childbearing, by accidents, or by the general stress and sagging weariness of life. She needs him to fight for her every day, for their relationship to be strong and for them both to thrive.

This is where cohabitation aims its kill shot: at the stability and confidence that comes from a woman knowing, without a doubt, that her man loves her, even in spite of herself. The New York Times recently published an article about those who cohabit outside of marriage, stating there’s a new phenomenon called the Cohabitation Effect. The Cohabitation Effect is the “baffling” link between premarital cohabitation and divorce. The Times article, written by a clinical psychologist, explains the effect through the example of a client, Jennifer, who was in the middle of a divorce.

As Jennifer and I worked to answer her question, “How did this happen?” we talked about how she and her boyfriend went from dating to cohabiting. Her response was consistent with studies reporting that most couples say it “just happened.”

“We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”

She was talking about what researchers call “sliding, not deciding.” Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

The article goes on to say:

When researchers ask cohabiters these questions, partners often have different, unspoken—even unconscious—agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Who knew that test-driving the car often leads to the inability to keep it? But it unfortunately makes sense. In this day and age of random bar “hookups” and “hanging out,” a couple could conceivably go through their whole relationship, from beginning to end, without ever having a clear conversation about it—where it’s going, where they want it to go, their expectations of each other, thoughts, dreams, needs, wants, and desires. A friend once told me that her boyfriend banned her from talking about marriage after they bought a house and moved in together. She waited several long years for the ring—which was what she wanted in the first place but wasn’t allowed to say. I can think of several other girl friends who were in the same boat. They all had one thing in common. They thought moving in together was a step in the marriage direction. Some got married, a few didn’t. And a few of them have already split up, which I find heartbreaking.

Women don’t want a man who’s “pretty committed,” one who’s insipid and banal, who’s got one foot in the relationship and one foot out the door waiting for someone better to come along. She can’t thrive and be, as Jennifer in the Times article says, “on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife” because there is always someone younger, prettier, and better out there. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure and stress on the lady when a guy doesn’t commit fully, not just physical pressure to always look perfect, but also psychological and emotional pressure to be perfect, all the time. She’s always just moments away from being tried and found wanting, which is devastating to the female heart. No wonder these couples don’t, or can’t communicate. It’s utterly terrifying to open oneself and be vulnerable in these circumstances.

The other point made in the Times article is worth a thought or three as well: the point that men and women agree that their standards for “live-in’s” are lower than they are for a spouse. There is probably a host of reasons for this, but I imagine the main reason is fear: the fear of loneliness and being alone, the fear of losing love, or being unloved, or the perception that we are unworthy of love. Women could easily fall into thinking that this guy is the only chance they have at love and happiness and they can’t screw it up by insisting on marriage first. This fear is usually deeply complicated, attached to everything from being bullied as a child right through to “daddy issues.” It typically isn’t fixed by “pulling up one’s bootstraps” or “bucking up and pushing through,” but is rather a sickness of the heart. It’s something a lady has to work through slowly, sometimes with professional or spiritual help.

But she has to work through it to be happy in her own skin, to be more fully herself, and also to understand her preciousness and importance in the eyes of God. When a lady understands and consciously believes that she is always loved through and through, she doesn’t settle for a jalopy when it’s the BMW she’s knows she wants. She’s not afraid to be alone, and she’s never lonely because when the eyes are opened to God, family always surrounds you, whether they’re blood-ties or not. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult to pass the time between a definite call to marriage and the wedding itself. But it does mean that you’ve been given the gift of time and a certain amount of freedom to do God’s Will, and more often than not, those gifts also bring about a much-needed healing of spirit and soul.

When she knows she is loved and has God as her anchor, a lady doesn’t accept love’s counterfeit. She insists on the real thing and on her man choosing to be all in or all out. She knows herself, and what’s in her heart. She needs their commitment to be marked by something–anything really, a ceremony, rings, the official stamp of approval from the church, their friends and family, or even the government. There’s a line in the movie Up Close and Personal starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer where she proposes marriage to him saying “I want you around in the morning,” to which he replies, “You already have me around in the morning. How, I don’t know, but you do.” She states, “I want to know you’re legally required to be there.” Despite what the world says, marriage is dreadfully important: to God, to men, but especially to women, because the very act of “forsaking all others” ministers to that longing deep within her, to be seen and loved for who she is, which is, in turn, essential to her well-being and happiness.

Does that mean the mere absence of premarital cohabitation ensures a successful marriage, or those who cohabit before marriage will, de facto, divorce? Absolutely not. Nothing absolutely ensures marital bliss, or marital dissolution for that matter. Relationships are, and always will be, a risk, and there are hundreds of other factors that come into play within any given relationship. But cohabitation and, with it, the possible lack of fully acknowledged commitment and the lowering of standards, is not (as it is generally perceived to be) a recipe for a solid marriage. More often than not it is a major contributing factor to its failure. Just take a look at the lives of Hollywood’s rich and famous. You’ll see for yourself.

Photo credit: The Graphics Fairy.

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