Should couples live together before getting married?

The jury is out on whether cohabitation before marriage reduces divorce, but regardless, all relationships go through the same four stages

We tend to move in with people who are like us – in education, physical attributes, social class and in other ways. Photograph: iStock

We tend to move in with people who are like us – in education, physical attributes, social class and in other ways. Photograph: iStock

 

I recently heard a young person (ie, somebody under the age of 30), express bafflement at the idea that anybody would consider getting married without having first lived with the person they were planning to spend the rest of their life with.

“Why would you even do that?” she asked. It was clear she saw marrying somebody with whom one has not already lived as the height of irresponsibility.

In other words, marrying without cohabitation increased the risk of breakdown, in her view.

Actually, the jury is out on whether cohabitation before marriage reduces divorce.

Research studies contradict each other. When cohabitation before marriage was unconventional, even described as “living in sin”, it appears that cohabitation was more likely to be followed by divorce if the couple married.

That’s strange, as you would expect people who had lived together to have worked their way through some of the problems that could later cause difficulties in a marriage.

One plausible theory is that people who lived together before marriage were unconventional and that after marriage they were more likely to take the equally unconventional step of divorcing – it was a personality thing.

But as living together before marriage became more conventional, the association with subsequent divorce seems to have fallen away.

Whatever way they do it, people have to negotiate the same stages in long-term relationships. First is the stage of infatuation, in which the other person’s faults are invisible. You have found the perfect person and nothing can ever come between you.

Next comes what I call the “Why can’t you be more like me?” stage. Infatuation falls away and they begin to argue over the differences between them. Maybe one sees the other as spending too much time at work or preferred leisure activities outside the house. Or maybe one tends to cut off arguments on issues the other person wants to talk about. This can actually be quite a painful stage, especially for those couples don’t handle conflict well.

This stage ends in some kind of resolution. In a positive resolution, partners develop toleration of each other’s differences and support each other in their life projects. In a negative resolution, the marriage breaks down or one partner comes to dominate while the other writes his or her individuality out of the picture, so to speak. Or the couple stay together in an atmosphere of simmering resentment.

Revive conflict

One would like to think that people who live together before marriage have worked their way through the second stage before they say “I do”. But even then, their subconscious – unaware and unexamined – ideas about marriage could revive conflict.

Does one one person expect the other to be present to a far greater extent after marriage than when they were living together? Might one expect the other to take on all the household chores once they are married?

These expectations could be based on each person’s parents’ marriage. Nonetheless, the resulting conflict has to be worked through.

All of this is exacerbated by the existence of a fourth stage which I haven’t mentioned but which comes before two people even move in together. This is the stage of subconscious attraction. We tend to move in with people who are like us – in education, physical attributes, social class and in other ways. We do this without thinking about it or making out a checklist – though reading other people’s declared attributes on Tinder is, I guess, a form of conscious checking.

The point about subconscious attraction is that it can hitch you up to somebody who has the above attributes and whose irritating ways only emerge after the honeymoon period.

In case I seem overly-pessimistic here, could I just say that millions of couples, whether they cohabit before marriage or not, have successfully negotiated the difficult stage in their relationships and have gone on to live happily ever after. Well, within reason.

If you’re setting out of the journey I wish you joy.

Just remember that wedding bells are not the end of the journey – they’re the beginning.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)

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