I’m pretty sure the second most disconcerting thing my current therapist has said to me–the first, of course, being when he offered his prayers on my behalf–was his off-handed declaration that I should never live with a man to whom I am not married.
“You’ll never do that again, right?” he asked, when I referenced having lived together with my ex.
“Excuse me?” I responded, fairly dumbstruck.
“It’s just a bad idea,” he said, going on to cite data that men and women who live together first are less likely to stay married.
“I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who would marry someone before living with them,” I declared.
“I know,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
We moved on, and I dismissed his advice the way you might dismiss someone telling you not to spend a thousand dollars on a Gucci dress when you’ve got no way to buy it: it didn’t exactly feel like the most relevant discussion to engage considering my circumstance.
Clearly, I need not feel much personal urgency to consider this question. But I’d like to think that someday I will. And yesterday, it was in the New York Times. Again: my therapist had a point.
The data from this federal study that has just come out is apparently almost eight years old. And it does suggest that couples who live together before they get engaged are less likely to remain married. But it also finds that cohabitation is only getting more common, and the statistical difference isn’t all that great.
I am fascinated, though, by the idea that living with someone before committing to them more seriously could be anything but positive. It goes against common sense, and, in fact, what’s common: as the study shows, it is no longer radical to move in together. Most people think of it as the responsible thing to do. How can you decide that you want to spend your life with someone if you don’t know whether the way they hang their pants is going to drive you insane? (Clearly I have been single a long time; I honestly could not think of a better example.)
I may not be able to tell you why at this moment, but I think we’d all agree that you learn a lot about someone by living with them. So the real question is whether its necessary to learn all of this before you marry them. And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that it isn’t. Because after all, no matter how much time you spend with someone, there are going to be things you still don’t know before you get married. Things like how they’re going to look with a receding hairline and–assuming you haven’t had kids and will–what they’re truly going to be like as parents.
I wonder if the real problem is this idea that there is anything such as a perfect mate, and that we expect through living together we’ll be able to recognize whether someone is or isn’t. The reality, of course, is that no one is perfect, or even perfect for you: you can’t ever fully know that someone is going to make an ideal long-term companion. You make a decision based on what you do know about someone and you choose commitment because that’s what you want.
So, is living together necessary in order to make that choice? My therapist, federal researchers, and probably a lot of grandparents say no.
And I sort of get it, I do. But does that mean I’m willing to commit to a lifetime with someone before I know how they manage their closet? And, presumably, other More Important things that I actually care about? I’m not sure.
Fortunately, I think I have time to contemplate.