What You Need to Know Before Living Together
By: MARGARITA TARTAKOVSKY, M.S.
Over 12 million unmarried Americans are living together in 6 million households, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007.” With cohabitation so common, it’s easy to think that living together is as simple as merging each other’s things into one household.
It’s anything but. Below, relationship experts weigh in on whether living together is a good idea and how couples can make that decision wisely.
Is Living Together a Smart Move?
Couples therapists have different opinions on whether living together before marriage is a wise decision. For instance, according to Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage, “living together is putting oneself in a very vulnerable position,” especially if kids are involved.
When there isn’t a clear agreement, she says, “anyone can leave at any point.” However, “when there’s a clear commitment [of marriage], you learn to negotiate the rapids and come out on the other side.”
She also says that “there is significant research that the longer a couple lives together before they marry, the higher the odds of getting divorced.” One of the reasons may be that cohabiting without getting married usually means there’s something preventing you from making that commitment, and “pure living together doesn’t take care of” your issues, she says.
According to Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy, while “moving in together doesn’t solve anything…it might bring to light things that need to be worked on.”
What’s more, he says that cohabiting “is much more complicated than most articles (and the survey studies themselves) imply.” We just don’t have enough information to make a definitive statement one way or the other, he says. Moving in together without being married isn’t necessarily a sign of problematic underlying issues, he maintains.
There also may be other intervening variables at play, he says. For instance, Solley cites research suggesting that American couples who live together and take premarital education courses or see a counselor may not be at a higher risk for divorce.
When thinking about cohabiting, “The question is not whether the order of events will make a difference in a relationship, it’s how you feel about your relationship,” Solley says. Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great, agrees, saying, “I don’t think the situation should make the decision.” What should, she says, is “your relationship, how you work as a couple, how you feel about one another and how committed you are to each other.”
So moving in together really “depends on the couple and [the] reasons why you’re living together,” she says. Some couples want to cohabit because of convenience (e.g., one partner’s lease is up), saving money or the desire to see where the relationship is going. According to Orbuch, these reasons are not compelling enough to make the move. “You should not say to yourself I’m going to find out ____ by living together,” she explains.
Some experts do believe that living together can reveal whether you’re compatible. NYC-based couples psychologist Michael Batshaw, LCSW, who believes that it’s generally “more helpful to have lived with somebody” before marriage, says that “Certain things are essentially impossible to know in terms of compatibility if you aren’t spending every day with that person.”
On the other hand, Orbuch says that a wise reason to cohabit is “to strengthen a relationship, not to see if you’re compatible,” though she says that she’s known couples who’ve realized they aren’t compatible after living together.
Tips for Making the Decision to Move in
With so many expert opinions on cohabiting, how does a couple know what to do?
While experts may have various perspectives on living together, they all emphasize the importance of making this decision thoughtfully and being on the same page about your life together.
Here’s a list of things to consider before moving in together.
1. Give it enough time before taking the leap.
According to Solley, “it takes at least six months of being together to get through the honeymoon period and start to become more aware of differences that were always there but because of hormonal changes and the general glow of the early phase of courtship are often overlooked or minimized.”
If couples want a marker, a year is a helpful guideline, says Batshaw, also author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged and the forthcoming Things You Need to Know Before Getting Married: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage. He says that if you create a risk benefit analysis on cohabiting, waiting “a little bit of extra time doesn’t hurt anyone.” Plus, it gives each partner his or her personal space to process the relationship.
Another advantage of waiting to cohabit is that you have the chance “to build up positive currency with each other in your psyche so that when conflict comes up, it’s balanced with positive interactions,” says Batshaw, who’s leading a NYC seminar this spring on Cutting Through the Obstacles to True Intimacy. This is easier to do when you’re living separately as “living together creates natural conflict.”
2. Talk about your values and beliefs.
It’s important for couples to “flesh out the underlying meanings, values and feelings” about living together, Solley says. You want to really listen to “each other in terms of what each person’s beliefs are and why, and what the feelings (usually fears in this case) are for each.”
He explains, “For example, one person might be afraid that moving in together before engagement would set a ‘partial commitment’ trajectory, or is morally wrong, or would not be accepted by his or her family, whereas the other might fear that engagement before living together would be premature, would not allow a realistic appraisal of their relationship [and so on].”
What about the data on cohabitation and divorce? Solley tells couples to be careful about “using some set of statistics to back up one argument or another. Unless the evidence is really clear-cut (e.g., second hand smoke is bad for babies and kids), third party justification risks short-circuiting the more important fuller discussion of values and feelings.”
3. Ask specific questions.
Solley says that the questions below are helpful to ask in any point of your relationship when considering a long-term commitment (but after the honeymoon period of six months). They may help you figure out if cohabiting is a good decision for you.
How do I feel with this person in general?
Is s/he responsive to me? Does s/he accept influence from me?
Is s/he there when I reach out and need him/her?
Does s/he hear me when I’m scared, hurt or sad, and can s/he help relieve my distress?
Do I feel valued and that what I have to say matters?
Do I feel safe to talk about anything? To say what I really feel or wish for, even if my partner may disagree?
Do we learn from each other and grow as a couple?
Orbuch suggests asking several questions as well, which are the same questions she recommends asking before getting engaged. “Living together is a commitment just like getting engaged and getting married,” she says.
Do you trust each other?
How do the two of you handle conflict?
Do you have similarities in underlying values about topics such as money, religion and children?
4. Do not become financially entangled.
… Says Heitler; Solley agrees, adding, “At the outset, it’s probably wise to keep your money separate and come up with an explicit agreement about how things will be paid for [and] by whom.”
He also suggests talking about your values about money, such as spending versus saving and your priorities for spending.
5. Have a plan.
Talk about “how you each relate to your living space, your daily habits, sorting out roles and responsibilities and all the things that living together bring[s],” Solley says. For some couples, this will be easier, while for others, it’ll take more work.
As Batshaw says, consider the little issues you think are insignificant, because no issue is too small when it comes to daily living.
For instance, you might ask, “Who does what according to what standard? Solley says. “Household tasks can be divided semi-randomly, according to ability, desire, and available time, or by other criteria.”
6. Consider what you’ll do next.
Many people don’t plan for the future, Orbuch says, which can leave partners confused and with different expectations. For instance, without an agreement, after a year, one partner might want to know whether they’re getting married while the other partner has no clue. So talk about how long you’d like to live together before making the decision to get married.
7. Talk about your conflicts.
If there’s an issue that’s bothering you, that holds you back from making your relationship a permanent commitment, “ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away,” says Heitler, who emphasizes the importance of talking about these problems. Like she says above, living together won’t solve your problems. So it’s best to discuss them before the U-Haul arrives.
8. Seek therapy.
If you’re struggling with certain issues as a couple or want general guidance to help you figure out the future, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in working with couples.
According to Solley, “On average couples wait six years after problems start before getting help, which makes it harder to turn things around. The sooner you admit to yourself that you’d like things to be better, the more likely you’ll be able to have the relationship you want.”
Also, keep in mind that if you’ve already tried to get help, it isn’t that your problems are impossible, but it may be that the therapist “didn’t have the skill set that you needed, so find someone else,” Heitler says.
The question of living together is a complex one, and the above are guidelines in helping couples to make that decision thoughtfully. Undeniably, relationships as a whole are complex and operate on many different levels, Solley says.
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