Did you know that couples who live together before marrying are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than couples who do not live together? And yet, nearly half of twenty-somethings surveyed say (pdf) that they would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together first, so that they could find out whether they really got along. And two-thirds of twentsomethings believe that cohabitating before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce, Meg Jay writes in her book “The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter—and how to make the most of them now.”
Living together before marriage, or at least the promise to commit to marriage, is a terrible idea. It’s such as bad idea that sociologists have a name for this broken phenomenon: it’s called the “cohabitation effect.” First, couples who cohabitate are usually moving in for conflicting reasons—women think of moving in together as a step up in their relationships, while men think of moving in together as a way to get easy access to sex. Oh, and yes, let’s state the obvious: cohabitation is also cheaper and convenient….because that’s what solid relationships should be based on, am I right?
Yes, living together is cheaper…at first. Cohabitation actually becomes expensive when you want to get out of it. “Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs,” Jay writes in the New York Times. “Living together can be fun and economical, and the setup costs are subtly woven in. After years of living among roommates’ junky old stuff, couples happily split the rent on a nice one-bedroom apartment. They share wireless and pets and enjoy shopping for new furniture together. Later, these setup and switching costs have an impact on how likely they are to leave.”
Moving in with someone without first being engaged is a deal-breaker for women who are serious about getting married. Jay explores the long-term effects of this phenomenon in her book, writing:
“It is the couples who live together before an engagement who are more likely to experience poorer communication, lower levels of commitment to the relationship, and greater marital instability down the road. Multiple studies have shown that those who live with their partners before an engagement are less dedicated before, and even after, marriage. A life built on top of a “Maybe We Will” simply may not feel as consciously committed as a life build on top of the ‘I Do’ of marriage or the ‘We Are’ of engagement.”
If you really want to test your spouse’s personality and see if you two would be a good fit for one another, there is a much better way to get the job done. I recommend that you travel abroad (preferably, to a developing country) with your spouse to see how you both respond to unpredictable situations. When you are overseas together as a couple, you will have wonderful new experiences together for sure, but you may also lose your credit card, get robbed, have trouble speaking fluently to the locals or experience less-than-stellar hotels. Those experiences will help you see your spouse at their best and worst moments.
Jay agrees with this idea in her book. “Traveling in a third-world country is the closest thing there is to being married and raising kids. You have glorious hikes and perfect days on the beach. You go on adventures you would never try, or enjoy, alone. But you also can’t get away from each other. Everything is unfamiliar. Money is tight or you get robbed. Someone gets sick or sunburned. You get bored. It is harder than you expected, but you are glad you didn’t just sit at home.”
So plan to have an experience with your significant other, and make it a long vacation—the trip should last 20 days at a minimum. Pay attention to how your partner handles budgeting/spending, cleanliness, conflict and sudden changes.