Should We Move Together Before Marriage?
Should we move together before marriage? Answered once and for all! Studies have found that cohabitation before marriage is associated with an increased risk of divorce, although there are also studies that rule out this relationship. Why does this phenomenon, which has become so prevalent and designed to improve fit, yield such controversial results?
“Only dead fish swim with the current.” ~ Malcolm Magridge
Cohabitation before marriage is much more common today than in the past, and over 70 percent of couples in the United States live together before they decide to institutionalize the relationship. The main argument in favor of such cohabitation is that it allows the couple to get to know each other and find out if they are getting along well enough to get married.
Surprisingly, however, many studies have found that cohabitation before marriage is usually associated with an increased risk of divorce, lower quality of marriage, poorer communication and higher levels of domestic violence. Although there are also (fewer) studies that deny a connection between cohabitation before marriage and divorce.
Why does this phenomenon, which has become so prevalent and designed to improve fit, yield such controversial results? The answer lies in the decision-making mechanism for moving from cohabitation to married life – which is often a mechanism of drift, which does not necessarily express great love.
“Drifting continents, and so do hearts.” John Mark Green
For many, the romantic behavior over time is similar to that of dead fish, floating with the current and slowly drifting along it. And while the romantic drift is not necessarily negative, the context of the decision to move from living together to marriage seems to be often detrimental.
The intellectual system and the emotional system are two systems of decision making. When we use the mind, we weigh our position in a conscious process that takes time, as opposed to the emotion that makes decisions quickly and intuitively.
Another decision-making process is the slow drift. In fact, it is an avoidance mechanism that includes indecision or decision not to decide. Underlying a slow romantic drift is a gradual transition from one romantic state to another, without the person being fully aware of it or explicitly choosing to do so.
The transition from cohabitation to marriage is often (but not always) based on romantic drift. To understand the impact of such a decision-making process on a long-term marriage, we must understand what underlies a romantic commitment.
The psychological commitment theory addresses three main factors that determine the level of romantic commitment: the degree of love, the price of separation, and the availability of the alternative.
Romantic commitment is strengthened not only when love is strong, but also when the price of parting is great; Commitment weakens when there are more romantic alternatives available. The quality of the loving relationship has the greatest impact on the continuation of the relationship, far greater than the external factors of the price of separation or the availability of the alternative.
However, when love is not strong, the price of separation and the degree of attraction to alternatives may together be weighty factors. For example, when a spouse suffers from some serious illness, the price of parting is very high, because in this situation parting is like abandoning a wounded man on the battlefield.
The shame and public criticism of parting in these cases can be so acute that it is clear that in most cases there will be no parting, no matter what the degree of love. Similarly, when there are a lot of romantic alternatives around you, it is harder to be happy in your romantic part.
How is the decision to get married made?
“In the days when I was still dating, the scary word was: ‘commitment’. Once most men heard I had a child, they ran away. If I was close enough to say the words ‘I love you’, they ran away faster.” Regina Brett
In studies conducted by Scott Stanley and colleagues, it was found that the decision to get married while living together is made through a process of slow drift, which almost does not involve making an informed mental or emotional decision. Thus, more than half of the couples living together did not discuss the consequences of moving beyond marriage, but simply drifted into it.
Compared to a normal affair, or a relationship that does not have a binding framework, cohabitation involves a higher price in case of separation (e.g., financial obligations, joint tenancy, joint pet, pregnancy, embarrassment), but does not necessarily include a significant increase in the intensity and depth of love.
The researchers argue that the relatively low weight given to love may become problematic after marriage, when the couple will have to deal with various obstacles together.
It is interesting to note that the negative effects of cohabitation on marriage decrease significantly if the cohabitation begins after the engagements, i.e. after the decision to marry has already been made. In such a case, the decision to marry was made when the weight of love and not the price of separation was what was most significant.
Another factor that limits the ability of cohabitation to make an optimal decision whether to marry is the fact that couples living together tend to underestimate the differences between cohabitation and marriage, especially when it comes to long-term commitments and challenges.
Many couples who live together and decide to get married, assume that this will be reflected in only a tiny difference in their lifestyle.
This assumption is very wrong: cohabitation before marriage may seem like marriage, but it is completely different. Such housing does not include the full extent of the restrictions in marriage (such as, for example, exclusivity and less freedom), and the challenges (such as raising children).
Shared residences seem to be a kind of test in improved conditions, with less commitment and fewer challenges. In this test, the force of inertia has significant weight.
Moreover, when a couple gets married after living together, the couple’s passion is not at its peak.
If people reach the peak of their passion during cohabitation, they reach the challenging first years of marriage without the passion engine that provides them with the energy needed to overcome challenges in the marriage. It is also possible that after cohabitation people will treat divorce more easily, because cohabitation has made them experience and think of separation as more natural.
Commitment theory sees the existence of romantic alternatives that are easy to achieve as a factor that reduces commitment in marriage. While cohabitation reduces the number of quality alternatives, and in this sense strengthens the given relationship, since cohabitation is a step in choosing a partner, this limitation may impair the ability to find the most suitable partner.
This is another reason why cohabitation may be valuable after the decision to marry has already been made – and the main goal now is to strengthen the bond.
Living together can be harmful if you are still looking for the best romantic partner.
The move to cohabitation does not seem to be accompanied by a significant increase in commitment, but it usually leads to a strengthening of the constraints that encourage the couple to stay together, regardless of their degree of commitment or love.
“You can find a woman who has never had a forbidden affair, but it is rare to find someone who has only had one such affair.” François de la Rochefoucauld
Contrary to the considerations I have described here, there are researchers who emphasize the value of cohabitation before marriage as a kind of “experiment” that allows the couple to get to know each other better before they commit and get married.
Proponents of this view argue that those who live together before marriage are at higher risk of dissolving the marriage, not because they lived together, but for reasons like their personality and history, which lead them to live together without marriage in the first place. Such cohabitation, as opposed to marriage, is a choice of people who in practice are less committed.
It should be noted that Scott and colleagues claim to have taken this factor into account as well as other personal and circumstantial differences.
Newer research indicates that cohabitation before marriage has a different effect in the short and long term. In the first year of marriage, couples who have lived together before have a lower divorce rate than those who have never lived together, and this is probably due to the benefit of experiencing life together that they have already experienced.
But this advantage lasts only in the first year, and then it disappears. The disadvantage in the context of marital stability of cohabitation increases most strongly after five years of marriage, and remains more or less constant over time.
In conclusion, the discussion here did not address the value question of sex and cohabitation before marriage; For most people this question has already been decided. The discussion focused on more practical aspects relating to possible risks to the quality of marriage as a result of cohabitation, and the possible ways to reduce these risks.
We have seen that there are weighty factors associated with the decision-making process to move from cohabitation to marriage, which often adversely affect the quality of marriage.
In any case, it is clear that this is not a decision whether to just add a piece of paper to an existing relationship, but a decision whether to significantly upgrade the mutual commitment underlying the relationship in cohabitation.
Hence the decision should not be made by the force of inertia, but should be made with seriousness and wholeheartedness.