Even after our marriage next week, my then-new husband Tom and I will not be living together, at least not full time, until next summer. It has to do with where our kids are in their lives, their schools, and so on. There will be lots of commuting and two homes about 45 minutes apart until then.
More than a few people have wondered: “Just why are you getting married now?” We joke to them that most folks today live together without getting married, so we decided to turn things on their head and get married without living together.
Of course, the real reason is that we want the commitment of marriage, and the responsibilities and privileges that come with it, even though we can’t live together full time right now.
Many will admit that our chances of staying married are, yes, statistically higher than for those who live together before marriage. It’s just that this commonly understood truth isn’t typically considered practical information. People will say, “So what? That’s because of your values, not the living history itself.”
But it turns out it may really be because Tom and I are “deciders,” not “sliders.”
Apparently for some couples who live together before marriage, cohabiting, per se, may actually contribute to unhappiness after marriage and even to divorce. That’s because, as researchers at the University of Denver have shown, cohabiting may lead to sliding into a marriage you wouldn’t have otherwise chosen.
Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, told me that often couples who live together report that their cohabiting “just happened.” Then, after years of combining household stuff, expenses, and less tangible things like friends and family, the couple may “slide” into marriage itself. In contrast, if they’d lived separately, they might have more clearly seen problems in the relationship and more easily extricated themselves from it – before marriage.
Stanley calls it the “sliding vs. deciding” phenomenon. As he explained to me, cohabitation has natural constraints on it, from the shared address to the shared power bill. If they continue on that path toward marriage because of the inertia of the relationship – it just seems difficult to change directions – such couples will typically have a lower-quality relationship even if they do stay married. And, in fact, the data is clear that couples who live together before marriage are, statistically speaking, not as likely to be happy as those who didn’t cohabit.
By the way, the negative effects on marriage of living together diminish significantly if the couple move in together after they are engaged to be married, which makes the findings themselves ring even more true.
But isn’t marriage itself the ultimate “constraint” on a relationship? I asked Stanley. What’s really the difference if you end up in the same place?
Because, he explained to me, in one case you may find yourself constrained without actively choosing it; and in the other, you are seeking it. And that can make a huge difference in whether you see the constraints of marriage, and the relationship itself, as positive.
It’s sometimes the case that a “slider” marries a “decider,” and that can be particularly difficult. (More on that next week.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all cohabiting couples who marry will eventually divorce or are unhappy, by any means. Look, I didn’t live with my first husband before marriage, either, and I ended up being blindsided by my union ending.
But particularly with cohabiting so the norm today, Stanley’s findings suggest that it may be wise for anyone in a relationship to simply ask: “Am I sliding or deciding when it comes to this romance?”
Betsy Hart’s latest book is “From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports).” Reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org.