Couples enter counseling with me often with the question, “Should we live together or get married?” As a psychologist and couples therapist, I have been trained to explore questions first, prior to giving an answer. And the truth is, for this question, I don’t HAVE an answer, though I do have access to a great deal of data and I do have a response.
My response is not focused upon morality, value judgments, or religious beliefs. It is focused on the issue of commitment. So, the really critical question I would ask couples is, what is your commitment in this relationship? The commitment in the decision to live together is much different than the commitment of marriage.
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The commitment to live together is generally speaking really not that much about commitment. It’s about, “let’s see if we can get along together before we make a commitment.” Some refer to it as a “trial marriage.” It really is a much different commitment than marriage for the majority of people. Of course, there are exceptions to this, yet I’m speaking “in general.”
Marriage is about making the commitment to building a life with this person, whether you like them every day or not, whether they are in a good mood every day or not, whether they meet your needs every day or not.
It is about seeing the “big picture,” about remembering why you are together for the long haul, even when the day-to-day ride is bumpy. It is about what you choose to give to the relationship, much more than about what you expect to receive. It is about working through the problems that come up, because you remember that you made a commitment.
And honestly, nothing can prepare you for the commitment of marriage, for the commitment to the long haul, to “forever,” whatever forever means in this world. The concept of the “trial marriage” is statistically proven to be a poor indicator of marriage success.
The majority of cohabitators either breakup or marry within two years. The risk of divorce after living together is 40 to 85% higher than the risk of divorce after not living together. Those who live together before marriage are almost twice as likely to divorce than those who do not live together.
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Why is this? There are many theories about it. Personally, I feel there are a few pieces to it. First of all, most of us are not perfect, we have some flaws, we have fears, we have parts of ourselves we hide from the world, parts we are not proud of, that cause us some amount of shame. We have varying degrees of doubt as to our self-worth, our desirability, our “love-ability.” This may be conscious or unconscious.
And often, these deeper issues don’t come up in a living together situation, or if they do, not as strongly as when the commitment to marriage is made. Only then will our psyches feel safe enough to let down our guard, lower our defenses and let our “dark side” come out fully. And often, only then is our partner prepared to face and accept this side of us, without turning and running in the other direction. This is where a strong commitment is needed.