Are marriages better if you first "live together?"
A good question but there is not a good answer yet. For one thing, there are several reasons for living together. Some people live together to test out their relationship--a "trial marriage." But, many other people, e.g. 25% of all college students sometime during their four years, just like each other and start sleeping together. (College students usually sleep in the male's room while the female keeps her room just in case it doesn't work out and to "fool" her parents.) Only 10% of college students living together consider it a life-long commitment; their purpose is not to test out or improve a future marriage; they are 20-22 and they don't want to get married until 8-10 years later. Meaningful research must, at least, separate the "trial marriages" from the "love affairs." Living together can also serve other purposes: it can be a way to entice someone into marriage, it can be a convenient way to get lots of sex or a companion, it can be a substitute for marriage. Be sure you and your partner are working for the same goals.
There are studies which supposedly "prove" that people who have "lived together" are more apt to fail in marriage (get a divorce) than those who have not lived together before marriage. However, there are other studies that show the opposite--that people who have "lived together" are more likely to stay together (White, 1987) than those who have not had that experience. Clearly, all of these people were serious about marriage; they tried it. But divorce is only a sure sign of marital unhappiness; remaining married is not a sure sign of marital happiness. So if the researchers have groups with different attitudes about the acceptability of divorce, they will get different results. It seems quite likely that couples who were open to living together will be more open to the idea of divorce if they become very unhappy. So, thus far, divorce rate doesn't tell us much about the wisdom of living together and mate selection. Ratings of marital satisfaction would tell us more. Recent surveys find that 38% of couples who lived together before marriage were divorced within 10 years; 27% of couples who did not live together were divorced within 10 years.
The research needs to focus on more specific questions, such as: How often (for whom and how) does living together help prepare us for marriage? How does living together cause harm? How are negative attitudes towards living together (and associated moral values) helpful or harmful in the subsequent marriage? How often does living together help us detect and escape bad relationships? How often does it permanently entrap us in bad relationships? The limited research we have now provides only tentative suggestions and answers, as follows.
First of all, "living together" increased by 45% between 1970 and 1990. In recent years, approximately 70% of people getting married have lived together. But only about 20%-35% of the people living together end up getting married. Remember, many weren't seeking marriage, but it seems likely that many who "split" would say, "Thank God, we didn't get married." Therefore, at least some people learn things about the relationship that helps them avoid a bad relationship. Ideally, avoiding a disastrous marriage is an advantage of living together, but there are many reasons why we can't avoid all future unhappy relationships by living together. For example, many observers agree with Joyce Brothers (1984, pp. 123-128) that people living together are on their best behavior, "walk on eggs," and avoid confrontation because they are eager to have someone love them and insecure in the temporary relationship. So, living together isn't a good, honest "trial" (and Brothers recommends against it). Moreover, this super nice premarital behavior may partly account for the radical changes in behavior, personality, and attitudes (almost always for the worse) that sometimes occurs shortly after marriage. Many married couples testify that living together didn't really prepare them for marriage; they still didn't know each other and had many adjustments to make, similar to couples who haven't lived together. Besides, the intense romance subsides in 2 or 3 years. So, 5 years and 2 children later, it is a different relationship. Living together is no sure cure for marital problems, but it may be your best bet when you want make as good a choice as possible.
Living together and getting pregnant as ploys for getting someone to marry you are usually ineffective and unwise. This kind of pressure, added to the other adjustment problems at this time, strains the relationship to the breaking point. The pursued partner starts to feel trapped and to find others very attractive; if they don't make the effort to work out their major problems, the relationship probably ends. In other cases, where one partner assumes more of the responsibilities (income, cleaning, cooking, etc.), that partner often starts to feel used. If the partner feeling used is a pregnant woman, she has two serious problems: what to do with the guy and with the baby. Finally, because a trial marriage is a test, the couple often postpone working on adjustment problems. The attitude is: "We'll just stay together as long as things work out." Few loves could survive without more commitment and work than that.
My conclusions on this very murky issue are: if you have strong moral-religious beliefs against living together, then don't. If you both are not ready for marriage but want a steady partner, living together offers obvious advantages and some risks. It can be a fantastic, real life learning experience of loving and adjusting on equal terms with another person. But, the "break up" can still be messy and painful, almost like a divorce. If you are considering marriage, have the time, and are psychologically aware of the pitfalls, living together may be a good way to initially assess the compatibility of the two of you in an intimate situation. However, this is a tricky undertaking, because (1) you are deeply in love romantically, probably still infatuated, and eager to continue impressing and winning over the partner (who is not the same person you will live with for 60 years or so), but (2) you are also attempting to honestly assess the quality of this relationship in the long run and must be willing to leave the relationship (otherwise it isn't a test or a trial). While you are not unswervingly committed to marrying your partner, you must make every effort to make it work. While appreciating his/her efforts to be especially nice, you must not assume he/she will always be this nice. These are difficult undertakings and judgments, even for a mature, experienced person. But it is even more complex.
In addition, before starting a trial marriage (even before having sex), both people might want to consider the advantages of "saving" sex and living together until after marriage. For many people, their wedding day could be made an even more super-special event with great personal-social-sexual-spiritual meaning if they "saved themselves." In addition, during a trial marriage, both people have to consider how good the current relationship is in comparison to another relationship they could possibly have with a different partner. That's very hard to do. In short, there aren't compelling reasons either way, i.e. for "saving yourself" or for a "trial marriage." Therefore, it becomes an emotional, intuitive decision, rather than a logical one. Yet, in most situations (assuming religion wouldn't be a problem), I'd want to live with and/or be very involved with my lover on a daily basis for months before making a life-long commitment to marriage and children.
My last bit of obvious advice: don't get pregnant. In fact, wait 3 or 4 years after getting married and be sure the relationship is still happy before having children. Splitting without children is a lot easier than with children.
Keep living together in perspective. It is just one of many possible "tests" for a potential partner. The best predictor of a good marriage is a long, relatively smooth relationship, in which a wide variety of problems and successes are experienced. In addition, long, detailed discussions and commitments are needed about many possible future situations, such as educational and career plans of both, having and caring for children by both, family relationships, religious matters, money matters, life-style, social lives, buying a home, decision-making and division of labor, etc., etc. (Bozzi, 1986).
Get pre-marital counseling
Several months before getting married it is a good idea to get pre-marital counseling. Many priests and ministers require it if he/she is going to perform the marriage. Clergy have more experience than therapists in this area. Moreover, many clergy make wise use of a questionnaire, such as David Olson's Prepare, which measures the couple's strengths and weaknesses in such areas as communication, personality, expectations, equalitarian roles, leisure activities, conflict resolution, financial management, parenting, etc. The cost is $25 for the test but these objective measures lead directly into counseling issues that need to be considered, e.g. will we have a family and, if so, when and how many. If you disagree about how decisions will be made or the division of labor, those are serious issues. If your "intended" has personality traits or ways of communicating which already bother you, these things need to be resolved long before marriage. Pre-marital counseling provides a great opportunity for couples to get to know each other better, learn communication, decision-making, and conflict resolution skills, prepare for marriage, and prevent future problems. Don't avoid this experience even if you think you are "perfect for each other." Maybe it is especially important if you think you have a perfect relationship.
Books give advice about selecting a partner
Finding a mate for life is such an important step in life, of course there are specialized books. Schwartz (1999) has written The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Dating and Relating. Branden (1981), Sternberg (1987), and Hendrick & Hendrick (1992) help us understand romantic love relationships in general. Several books by professional counselors could help you in the selection of a life-long mate--or to reconsider a decision to date only one particular person. They include Crowell (1995), DeAngelis (1992), Barbach & Geisinger (1992), and Whyte (1990). Giler (1992) guides career women along the path to Mr. Right. Short (1992) helps us differentiate among sex, love, and infatuation. Borcherdt (1995) tries to help us stay rational while in love. Other therapists tell us why we select a particular kind of lover (Blinder, 1989) or get into a love-hate relationship (Arterburn & Stoop, 1988). If you seem to be afraid of getting "involved," try Callahan (1982) or Carter (1987) and see the books about intimacy mentioned in the next section. Matthews (1993) provides a survival guide for engaged women.
Cowan & Kinder (1985), Norwood (1985), and other writers (see books about marriage) focus on psychological needs and fears which give rise to foolish choices about partners. It is especially important that you distinguish between being "in love" and being in a good love relationship (Halpern, 1994). The partner that immediately turns you on may be unavailable or ultimately a disaster. Conversely, a good love choice may seem boring at first. Halpern helps you avoid poor choices and find excitement in a good-but-not-intoxicating partner. You need to know what real love is.
Many books suggest building your interpersonal skills and awareness that will increase your chances of finding intimacy and love (Sills, 1987; Burns, 1985; Bradshaw, 1993). If nothing produces a great relationship for you or if it just seems too much of a hassle, find a good book about growth and fulfillment as a single person (Edwards & Hoover, 1975). For the psychologically serious self-helper, I recommend Hendrix (1992) who carefully guides you to explore your unconscious needs from childhood that determine who you fall in love with and the kinds of conflicts you have in love relationships. The theory is that we select a lover who we think will meet our strong unmet needs from childhood. Such a self-analysis is an arduous task but worth doing before falling in love. Losing love can be one of life's most painful events; it can be crushing to your self-esteem. If your heart has been broken, refer to Baumeister & Wotman (1992) and to the many other books cited in chapter 6.
A relationship is like a dance: to stay close without stepping on each other's toes takes practice.
Harriet Goldhor Lerner, The Dance of Intimacy
Lerner (1989) has written several highly regarded books. Her The Dance of Intimacy is mostly for women. It facilitates relating your early family history to your current reaction to intimacy and makes some cogent points. First, intimacy involves both separateness (being our true selves and living our own lives) and connectedness (being in love with and committed to another). It is a delicate balance; love requires that we avoid too much distance and too much intensity (over-focusing on changing, caring for, or depending on the partner). Second, we are prone to polarize disagreements. For example, as discussed under "unconscious factors" above, one partner may become the "chaser" and the other the "escaper." This polarizes the issue (how committed will we be?) in a very distorted way and keeps the two at odds and stuck. Both partners have reasons to seek and avoid a commitment, not just one on each side of the issue. That depolarized reality should be admitted and discussed. Moreover, if other events (past or present) are contributing to the "desperation" of the chaser or the "cold feet" of the escapist, this should be admitted at least to oneself and probably discussed. Open discussion would further clarify the situation and help avoid over-focus on the single issue of commitment. The chaser should also shift some energy to dealing with his/her other goals and problems in life--and, in time, consider putting a time limit on deciding about commitment.
Third, and I think most importantly, Lerner says every lover should have a life plan that does not require marriage (and certainly not marriage to a particular person). It is a plan that insures our economic well-being, our development of our talents and potentials, our happiness with friends, causes, and activities, and our living in accordance with the values and morals we have decided to follow. Only in this way, during courtship, can we avoid becoming an emotional slave to a particular person we have met more or less by accident. Culture and biology have led us to think "I can't live without my lover." It is true that we need intimacy with others for our happiness and for meaning in life, i.e. a "life plan" can only rarely replace love relationships altogether. But the reverse is also true: intimacy can not replace a life plan. To be whole and healthy, we need both connectedness (interdependency) and self-sufficiency (independence).
In a similar way, other therapists do a good job of discussing for the lay person some of the deeper and more complex aspects of emotions in a relationship, especially Scarf (1986) and Hendrix (1988). Several other books cited below also attempt to help you wisely select a partner for life.