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Does Living Together Work?

One-sixth of our population is currently living together according to a survey published in National Health Statistics Reports (#111). Drs. Nugent and Daugherty studied 15,000 men and women nationally to compare demographics and attitudes among those living together, couples who are married and people unmarried but not living together.

In my experiences in pre-marital counseling, the majority of those seeking marriage preparation assistance are already living together. I can sense what this survey documented: young adults believe that there is an advantage to living together before marriage. Whether they believe that advantage has to do with security, finances or future marital bliss is less certain. Both Prepare-Enrich (the inventory I administer to couples) and the survey mentioned above cast serious doubts on the confidence of these couples about whether living together really helps anyone.

Living together, or cohabitation as this report described it, is responsible for earlier sexual activity in pre-18 year olds and greater “serial cohabitation” (living together multiple times with different partners). It is also related to higher poverty and an increased likelihood of separation or divorce. In other words, living together isn’t the protection for your happiness that our culture would have you believe.

In response to the question, “Does living together help prevent divorce?” over 80% of cohabiting women agreed while only 58% of the married women thought so. This overconfidence isn’t based on reality. For instance, a higher agreement among cohabiting couples to the statement, “Divorce is usually the best solution when couples can’t seem to work out their marriage problems” reflected a false sense of security. Half of the couples living together agreed while less than a third of the married couples thought divorce would be the best solution. In other words, there seems to be a greater readiness to break up when there isn’t a “piece of paper” holding you together.

I hear marriage referred to as a “piece of paper” quite often. This study suggests there is much more than paper holding couples together. The marriage license represents a commitment that was thought through and agreed upon and made public. That’s far more ceremony than giving someone the key to your apartment.

I have witnessed tragic consequences in couples who believed they were protecting their hearts and futures by cohabiting. I’ve seen the loss of possessions because someone changed the locks after a fight. I’ve witnessed a young father who lost custody of his son without any legal recourse because he had no rights without marriage. These losses were particularly devastating because they were unexpected and the disappointment was based on the false assumption that living together is just as good as marriage in protecting your heart and your rights.

Look before you leap when it comes to sharing space with someone. Even without any moral grounds for choosing to wait, marriage may offer much more protection than you think. Take some time to prepare with something like the Prepare-Enrich Inventory. It reveals how much you really know about the other person and helps you discover the subjects you haven’t discussed nearly enough.

Does living together work? Not as much as the romantics assume. Maybe moral and religious teachings have greater credibility than we think? How were your expectations altered?


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