Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Dismaying Story #114: The Living Together Debate

Dear Andrew,

I am twenty-five years old and I have a boyfriend who is twenty-seven. We have been going out for a year and seven months. We met online and had an online relationship for a month or so and we could not wait and we decided to meet each other since we have many things in common and think alike. We’re about to get engaged soon and we both want to move in together. Ever since we started our relationship it’s been going fast. We said to each other that we love each other early on in the realtionship. We started having sex after a month together and we know that are each other's soul mate.

We’re ready to be engaged and I want to move in with him when we find a place. My mother and father are traditional and they love him, but they disagree and are giving me a hard time about it. They think we should get married before living together, but we don't want to get married right now. We want to eventually, but we just want to have an engagement period and enjoy it.

My mother didn't have an engagement period because she got pregnant with me so they got married. She doesn’t understand the whole engagement part. She is pushing us to get married now! She tells me that in order for me to live with a man that we have to get married. I have always seen my mom support my cousin and now she brings the fact up to me that I should not be like her and live with a man without being married. Ever since I met my boyfriend I told my mother that he was the man I would marry. Now she tells me, “You always wanted to and you eventually will, so why not now?”

As a sociology major I know that couples these days wait to get married and have kids. They move in together without getting married first. She is stressing me out, causing us to fight and I am always stressed out when I see my boyfriend.

Should I move out just like that? I am an adult so I know I can move out without her permission, but I don't want any conflict brewing or bad feelings. I don’t want to have any negative karma coming my way especially now.

Signed, Torn

Dear Torn,

I have written in the past that once you get married, your first allegiance should shift to the new family that you and your spouse have just formed. You are not, however, in that position yet. You still have a foot in both worlds. You want to make a commitment to this relationship but you are still living at home. Despite the fact that you are an adult, your mother is still an important influence in your life and a source of hard-won wisdom.

I agree you should be careful about creating immense amounts of tension with your parents over this relationship. Assuming you end up marrying this guy, everyone will be much happier if he has a good shot at getting along well with his mother-in-law. Does that mean you should just let your mother tell you what to do? No, but you are right to be concerned about the long-term effects of any conflict you create now. Sometimes these sorts of issues can cause rifts that last a lifetime.

It is true that many people live together before getting married, so much so that much of the social stigma that used to be associated with doing so has now gone away. Several readers of this site have left comments in the past suggesting that living together is a good way to “try out” the practical side of a relationship, a way to find out if you are a good fit when it comes to sharing dishwashing duties and a tube of toothpaste.

I can tell that your mother disagrees with this view ... and so do I.

The theory sounds great -- let’s make sure we are compatible before making the ultimate commitment. You say you want to enjoy your engagement for a while and this seems to you like the best way to do so. These arguments have merit, and I suspect some readers will once again leave comments in favor of these factors.

To me, though, there are also risks with this scenario. I’ve seen the downside outweigh the good.

Every relationship has challenges. There are always times when your little voice inside pipes up and asks if all this stress is really worth it. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just walk away?” Living together brings extra stresses regardless of whether you get married first. You and your partner must share life to an unprecedented level, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for joy, but also for conflict. If you are married, you have extra incentive to stick it out, to really try your best to make things work. This increases the chances your relationship will succeed.

Simply moving in together does not create that extra level of commitment. The implication (and sometimes the explicit intention) is that you are trying each other out. This in itself can plant seeds of doubt that will grow like crazy when the inevitable challenges arrive. Then one day an argument erupts and you don’t have that commitment to serve as your shield against adversity. It is all too easy to simply walk away.

This leaves many people feeling inadequate when it comes to relationship skills. “I have failed once,” your inner voice says. “I wasn't good enough for that partner. Will I be good enough the next time?”

More than that, people who have lived together a time or two can struggle when they do get married. They have become used to the idea that living together still leaves the door open for walking out. This same feeling can carry over into the marriage, which leads to all sorts of problems.

Of course, many people manage to live together, remain committed, and have a long and wonderful marriage. I’m not saying living together is always a formula for disaster, just that it brings with it some extra challenges. Relationships are hard enough without weakening the commitment that is typically necessary to make them work.

I would be giving you exactly the same advice if I were in your mother’s shoes: enjoy your engagement for as long as you want to, but strongly consider getting married before moving in together.

Like I said, not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. You need to balance all these factors -- your own judgment and wishes versus the caution urged by folks like me and your mother ... and the potential for future mother-in-law problems for your hubby-to-be.

All the best,

Since this is Valentine's Day, why not take a moment and respond to the Question of the Week about Valentine's Day stories.


  1. I 100% agree with Andrew's take on this. My husband once appropriately called living together "dating under the same roof".

    Why even try this out if you're not sure it's going to work? If you're already having doubts so strong as to keep you from making a major commitment like marriage, then you either need to date longer or you need to not pursue this relationship at all.

    Best of luck with this!

  2. As someone that has done it both ways, my vote is with Andrew!

  3. Anonymous11:33 AM

    Why do people paint all "living together" situations with the same brush? My parents lived together for three years before they married and came out just fine. I cannot imagine marrying someone without living together--who wants to risk that many surprises?

    I know that people who live together before marriage statistically have a higher divorce rate, but is there any research on other factors that might contribute to this? Do people who do not live together before marriage stay in unhappy or abusive marriages because they are "more traditional" and resistant to divorce, even when it might not be such a bad idea? (And for goodness' sake, I'm definitely not in favor of starting families during "trial runs". I notice that being "traditional" did not save Torn's mother from getting pregnant and having to rush into marriage, which may be something she fears will happen to her daughter.) I, personally, would not want a long engagement, either. As far as I'm concerned, engagement is the time it takes you to get the wedding in order once you both know you are ready to get married.

    But I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all situation. I don't think everyone should live together; that depends on the couple. I don't think it should be a lazy substitute for marriage. On the other hand, I don't see any problem with people living together for a bit once they feel that they have already "tried out" each other and have made a decision.

    Perhaps Torn should move into her own apartment for awhile and establish herself as indpendent, out of her parents' home, and distanced a little more from the daughter/child role before she and her boyfriend make this decision.

  4. sounds like good advice doc! i would suggest that her boyfriend get his own place and they stay togther on weekends -- ie. she stay at his place

    BUT not move in....

    that way she gets her taste of seeing what it's like to hang out with him for more than one evening at a time, yet gets to go back to her own space when the weekend is over.

    just my 2 cents!

  5. It's hard to generalise on an issue like this, but in your case, because you feel unsure enough to seek advice, I think that the Doctor's words are very wise.

    I lived with my late partner for 33 years without marrying - that was our choice. It worked for us, but it wouldn't work for many others. I'd especially take note of the Doctor's remark about "the mother-in-law" problem.
    This caused me great pain over many years because of my mother's attitude to my partner - I loved them both dearly but often found myself in the middle of seriously distressing arguments.

    My partner died. I'm now married, and my husband and I spent one year living together before we married. We are "of a certain age", no longer young - the issues for us are different.

    I'd say, trust your intuition - it's telling you to "Be careful!"

  6. I agree too! I find myself wishing more often that I believed in living together before marriage, because I really want to be with my fiance (and wish that I believed in sex before marriage too, but I'll just have to be patient). Isn't moving in part of the "leaving and cleaving" aspect of marriage, starting a new life together, that sort of thing?

    Minority opinion, I know - most of the weddings I've been to in the last year, the couples were already living together. I can understand the desire, but sometimes we have to make wise, rational decisions that contradict our desires (temporarily, at least).

  7. I am in my early 40s and have never been married or lived with anyone. My attitude since early on has been "If I am not married to it or have not given birth to it, I am not living with it." If I am good enough to live with I am good enough to marry and if a man does not feel ready for that level of commitment but can manage to "play house" then he and his dirty socks can stay in his own place until he is ready for the real thing. I don't really have a moral problem with living together, to each their own, but I do have a problem with feeling like I am being "test driven." I am not a car.

  8. Torn,

    I'll throw in my vote on the side of living together. It doesn't sound like a trial period to me; you sound very commitment to your engagement and relationship. I lived with my husband for nearly a year before getting married (we weren't engaged) despite my parent's wishes to the contrary. We lived across the country, so they didn't know. We knew we wanted to be together and it made perfect sense to be together all the time. We just celebrated our third wedding anniversary. I agree with Andrew that a pattern of live-in situations that don't work out can be a problem, but I don't think you fit that mold. As for your mother, you have to be very careful. Speaking from personal experience, I would ask if you anticipate more differences of opinion with her as you move on with your family life. It is impossible for me to avoid moral conflict with my parents, as our views are so dissimilar, and it had to start somewhere. Will this be a permanent scar on your relationship with her, or will she get over it quickly?

    Best of luck.

  9. I think that Andrew is right, but also that Torn should put more thought into why she wants to move in with her boyfriend. Is it to get out of her mother's house? That's a bad reason to move in with him. She could move out on her own without moving in with him. If he's also living with his parents still, that might be part of the reason that he wants to move in with her, too. At least one of them should get his/her own place before they move in together.

  10. Anonymous3:50 AM

    this is the absolute first time when i disagree with andrew.

    i understand the issues that are more difficult with people who live together as opposed to people who are married AND live together. but if they don't overcome them, they're just not meant to be. living together is not a marriage without commitment, it's not a try-out, it's an introduction. it's a way to ease into the marriage.

    for example: i, as a person, believe marriage is nothing more than a piece of paper. if the commitment is there, in my feelings, i don't need it. if it's gonna work, it will work whether or married or not, whether we lived together or not. it's gonna work because we love each other and we're gonna make it work. i know it sounds naive to many people, people who believe a relationship is worth as much as the effort you put into it. but if that effort doesn't come naturally, then it's done in vain. cause at some point you're going to wonder why you keep doing stuff you don't feel inclined to do.

    but i digress...

    there are things that we do not find out about each other until we live together. just like i would never marry someone i never had sex with, as sinful as it sounds, for the simple reason that a relationship (ie marriage) includes sex and it should include some sort of sexual compatibility. i would never marry someone until i've seen how grumpy he is in the mornings, whether or not he gets involved in house business, whether he is the type of guy that likes to go out with his friends and leave his wife waiting for hours, etc. this kind of things you cannot find out unless you live with him. no matter how many times you sleep at his place or date him or whatever, as long as you don't live with him that can still be a mask that he can keep for those times and take off when you leave.

    torn's mother to me is pot picking kettle. a shotgun wedding is the worst kind: it's a wedding where someone gets married not because they want to but because they are forced to. no matter if they last or not, they will always be a shotgun wedding and there will always be that word going round: 'you know, they only married cause she got pregnant'. at least torn is mature enough to ease into things and know that all lasting things come gradually.

    ps: i agree with the poster that says that people who don't move in together before marriage might last better because of their traditional view of marriage rather than strength of feelings. and i would have a person who's twice divorced but lives her life the way she wants to over a person who sticks into a marriage for the sake of not getting a divorce any day.

  11. I totally agree with Andrew. The only men I dated who wanted to live together typically used it to put off marriage indefinitely. Never a good sign, and I never lived with anyone prior to marriage.

    My brother lived with his wife for 6 years before marriage and they divorced 2 years after the wedding. She treated living together as an audition and totally changed after they were legally wed. And the divorce was a total disaster.

    If Torn wants to enjoy the engagement period then what's the point of living together? Also, once they get married (if in fact they do) nothing will be special about it. In fact, married life will likely be a letdown since it will be exactly the same.

    Oh, and here's a little tip. Most people I've known who live together before marriage end up being expected to foot the bill for their own wedding. (why would the bride's father pay when she's been living with her 'husband' already?) And most people also don't feel very obligated to give much in the way of wedding gifts because the couple already set up household. This may sound trivial, but I've seen it really upset some brides.

  12. I think that living together is in no way the same as marriage. Once you're married that (in theory) is it. You have to try to find solutions to problems that most dating couples would give up on. But i do think that living together has its uses. You find out a lot, importantly, if you simply like being together almost all the time. I lived with my husband before we got married and it served us well as a transition. And my parents paid for the wedding, and we got lots of presents. And we've been married 21 years and still love each other very much. She needs to examine her heart and see what SHE thinks is the right thing to do.

  13. Anonymous3:32 AM

    so you would not live with your partner before the marriage so that your parents can pay the wedding bills and you get more presents?

    no comment.

  14. so you would not live with your partner before the marriage so that your parents can pay the wedding bills and you get more presents?

    Have you had to foot the bill for a wedding? You may think it's shallow, but most young couples (ok brides) want a big wedding but rarely can afford to pay for it themselves. And the wedding gifts are a huge help in setting up a household, which is kind of the point.

    This is purely from a practical standpoint. But I think it's naively romantic to think this won't be an issue later.

    And frankly, it's the tip of the iceberg. You only focused on this one thing I said when I listed several reasons why I thought living together was a bad idea. Why? Because you think it's shallow or you don't really want to look at all other reasons it might be a bad idea. I don't know why young couples can't wait just a little bit. Living together isn't the answer they think it is, I've seen it go wrong too many times.

  15. If they live together, maybe they could afford to pay for it themselves, and if they are that focused on a big wedding and gifts, maybe they need to refocus their priorities. (Speaking as a veteran of many of my friends' and relatives' small but very lovely weddings.) And if it's that big a deal, register for things they don't already have.

    I disagree that being married "won't be special" after living together. My parents, my brother & sister-in-law, and several of my close friends all lived together as couples for several years before marrying and insist that "making it official" made quite a difference and was really the "icing on the cake". (Nor do they at all regret living together and knowing their prospective spouses at their worst as well as their best beforehand.) However, as anonymous above pointed out, all of them had pretty well made up their minds that this was "the one" before they moved in, so in a sense it wasn't a trial run.

  16. *shrug*

    Nothing I say will really change anyone's mind. People are going to do what they're going to do.

    But I did do a quick google search on the statistics of living together vs. marriage and every study I found said that the odds of divorce were way higher in couples of live together. (some studies claimed 85% higher)Google it yourself and see what you think.