When marriages were arranged, people married without even knowing each other.
Then courtship was introduced as a prelude to marriage and people spent time getting to know each other before they walked down the aisle.
Nowadays, even courtship is not sufficient. Young couples require a trial period, in order to know whether they can get alone, whether they are compatible, whether they have great sex, and so on. They cohabit.
To distinguish it from courtship, I will call it pre-marriage. It may not start out as a pre-marriage but inertia inevitably leads it in the direction of marriage.
In an excellent column today, University of Virginia psychologist Meg Jay says that for many young people cohabitation is about “prophylaxis.” That is, protection.
It makes sense. Young people have been brought up to think that if they use protection they can do as they please. Rather than limit the precept to sex, they seem to have extended it to other areas of their lives.
Now that our culture has ritualized pre-marriage, social scientists have researched its value as an institution. They have discovered that it increases the likelihood of divorce.
The bottom line is: pre-marriage is bad for your marriage.
To clarify the analysis, Jay explains that we need to distinguish between two kinds of cohabitation. Some people engage in a pre-marriage because they are engaged or because they know that they will soon be engaged.
They have discussed what they are doing and they have committed to each other. Having exercised proper moral agency, they are called deciders.
Others, called sliders, fall into a pre-marriage without giving it too much thought. They are sharing a space; they become lovers; they believe that it’s cheaper to cohabit… and before you know it, they are a constituted couple.
Having allowed themselves to be led into something without exercising moral agency they have just let things slide.
Jay reports that cohabitation is much more a problem with sliders than deciders.
She describes how it happens:
Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.
Ironically, a generation brought up to be independent and autonomous, to make its own free choices has somehow fallen into the habit of letting relationships develop without there being any discussion, agreement, or definition. When it comes to cohabitation they are acting like moral slugs.
Having overcome the rules and roles that define social relationships they are paying the price. Neither married nor single, they have no real idea of what their roles are.
How many people do you know who dreamed of growing up to become someone’s domestic partner?
For the slider group, pre-marriage is founded on a basic misunderstanding. Women see it as a simulated marriage; men see it as a substitute for marriage.
Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.
Once two young people start living together, they start developing couple habits, couple rituals, and couple routines. They become identified socially as part of the couple. The longer it lasts the greater their investment in their relationship.
Jay explains well why it is so difficult to get out of cohabitation:
Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.
Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.
After a while it feels cheaper to marry than to separate. It’s not a good foundation for a marriage.