Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Living Together Before Marriage--not such a good idea?

The conventional wisdom, especially among younger adults, is that couples should live together for a time before getting married. The assumption, I believe, is that people assume that by living together a couple and test out their relationship. If it survives a few years of living together, than maybe it is worthy of a lifetime commitment.

This sounds reasonable, but the data doesn't support it. The NYT reports that a new study by the National Center for Health Statistics found that adults who live together before getting married about six percent more likely to get divorced within 10 years. Meanwhile, the number of couples who go this round has doubled in the past 15 years. Approximately 61% of women in the late 30's have lived with a sexual partner.

However, couple that were engaged before they started living together are actually more likely to stay together than the average. Other things that increase the likelihood of staying together: marrying after age 26 and having a child 8 months or later into the marriage.

I remember when I was getting ready to be married my therapist, Mary Gates, told me that the mistake couples usually make is to assume that being married is like living together. Actually, she told me, marriage is a whole 'nother beast. Marriage means taking a relationship beyond being about two individuals and brings in the entire clans. "You invite everyone into your bedroom," she said. The living and the dead.

And it's true, in my pastoral and personal experience, that marriage pulls the couple into much larger narratives and dynamics. Often they are simply unprepared for the change that marriage brings. I don't think that this is an issue for engaged couples because they already are living into marriage, and therefore never settle into a pattern of unmarried bliss.

This reforces my conviction that when I'm doing pre-marital counselling of couples that live together I need to talk quite a bit about how things change after marriage.



babahr said...

If a couple thinks they need to test-drive the relationship before marriage, they obviously have more than the usual doubts. That could more than explain the minor statistical difference.

Tay Moss said...

I'm not sure the "test-driving" is because of doubts. My sense is that people move in together because that seems like the next logical step in their relationship and that they see it as part of the natural progression towards marriage. I haven't had anyone tell me that they decided to live together without getting married because they had doubts.

This would make an interesting follow-up study. Especially if you create an instrument for measuring how much confidence couples have in the long-term prospects of their marriage and then compare that, longitudinally, with the actual outcome.


Tay Moss said...

On a side note--I'm a little troubled by the strongly psychological character of most wedding-prep. As though insight were the most helpful thing to give people. I suppose it's an okay place to start, but my experience is that insight alone is rarely enough to change people's lives. I know lots of unhealthy people who have spent many years understanding their problems without being about change them. Instead of pretending to be psychologists, perhaps we priests could be priests? Giving couples a spiritual vocabulary to understand and express that axis of their union is a very precious gift that, alas, often goes un-given. Grumble. Grumble.