In today’s world of soaring divorce rates, most couples are hesitant to commit themselves to marriage for fear of finding out that they are not really suited to be long-term partners. And yet, it is only natural that two people in a serious relationship would want to share a life together. In such a situation cohabitation or living together without being formally married may offer a middle path. But really how good is this idea for the health of a relationship?
The biggest advantage of cohabitation before marriage is that it gives both partners a fair idea of how it would feel to be married to the person. When dating, people naturally put their best foot forward but sharing a life with the same person can turn out to be a different ballgame altogether. Living together can be a good way of getting to know about the other aspects of your partner and get a feel of the commitment and practical responsibilities that sharing a life and home demands. Cohabitation lets you know how being married is different from merely dating your partner.
One of the biggest reasons why married couples drift apart is because they begin to take each other for granted. Marriage brings about a sense of other person belonging to you so that you no longer feel the need to work for the relationship that you had been doing when you were dating the same person. Living together on the other hand, prevents partners from completely taking each other for granted. Each is aware that if this does not work, the other person is free to leave. This realization may make both partners more conscious of nurturing their relationship and striving to make a success of it.
Living together also provides a way of getting to know aspects of your partner which might disappoint or you later. If you discover that the person you are living with is extremely irresponsible with money or that he/she has a tendency to get physically violent when upset, it is easier to exit the relationship while still cohabiting. This is because, if you are already married, there will be legal issues to sort out and in the worst case scenario, kids from the marriage to take care of, in case your partner is emotionally or physically abusive.
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If living together helps to bring about greater understand and attraction between the partners, it may mean that they are ready for a more committed relationship. Entering marriage with eyes open can increase the chances of its success and help the decision to be a mature one.
And yet recent sociological studies reveal that living together before marriage does not guaranteed marital happiness. A study published in Journal of Family Psychology in February 2009, showed that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to get divorced compared to couples who moved in after marriage. The research project, lead by Galena Rhoades of University of Denver included 1000 couples in between the ages of 18 and 34 who had been married for ten years or less. The study revealed that as much as 19 percent of couples who had lived together before marriage were unhappy in their marital life and had suggested divorce. Compared to this only ten percent of the couples who had never cohabited before marriage had thought of divorcing their partners. This showed that couples who had lived together before marriage experienced lower quality marriages and had greater chances of splitting up.
Yet another significant conclusion of the above study was that cohabiting couples who do go on to get married do so for all the wrong reasons – not because they are ready for a more committed relationship but because they feel that since they are already staying together, it is easier to get married and go on doing that rather than go through the inconvenience of separating. Moreover if couples have jointly invested in the house or have dependents like pets, they are more likely to get married to avoid the hassle of striking out an independent life.
In the last decade there have been several studies on cohabitation and its impact on marital success and the most of these have found out that couples who live together before marriage are likely to experience greater trouble than those couples who have not cohabited before marriage. A study by Bennett, Blan and Bloom, published in American Sociological Review, 1988, Vol 53: 127-138 and titled, "Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability" found out that those who live together before marriage are twice as likely to get divorced than those who did not live together. The study also found that partners who do live together are in fact less likely to get married at all as compared to those who are in a relationship but do not cohabit.
The greatest drawback of living together before marriage appears to lie in the nature of the arrangement. Here the conclusions of another study conducted by Hall and Zhao and titled “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada” and published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1995: 421-427, seems to be relevant. The study found that cohabitation itself appeared to be responsible for a higher divorce rate, rather than factors that might have led to cohabitation, such as parental divorce, underage partners, the presence of children from previous relationships, or different religions. In other words, other factors being the same, partners were much more likely to divorce if they were living together first.
There are several reasons for so many cohabiting couples breaking up. Partners living together are more likely to evade real issues of sharing a life when they are not married. Practical responsibilities or domestic chores may be divided but core issues like joint financial management and deeper commitment may remain unsatisfactorily understood so that when faced by a serious challenge, cohabiting couples may prefer to go their own ways. Even those who have got married may be unable to cope with the demands and commitments that a marriage entails. Moreover, partners living together may be more insecure of each other’s commitment in a relationship and hence less likely to trust each other, thus leaving their relationship open to misunderstandings and infidelities. Finally when partners belong to different religious or cultural backgrounds their cohabitation may be unable to withstand the overt or unspoken disapproval of parents, family and friends and consequently crumple under strain.
As far as statistics go, the numbers clearly seem to be stacked against living together as a way of ensuring success of a relationship. However if both partners are mature enough to understand the pros and cons of cohabitation and then go ahead with living together, at least the decision taken will be an informed one.