Sliding vs. Deciding: Cohabitation vs. Marriage
Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s talks about cohabitation and marriage, which love story will last?

There’s a quaint line in Taylor Swift’s song Love Story when Romeo kneels down, pops out a ring, tells Juliet he “talked to her dad” and now it’s time to pick out a white dress.

That courtship ritual may have been quite common just a few decades ago, but today’s mating habits are far less traditional. Modern Romeos and Juliets date for a bit, then start sleeping over at each other’s places. Eventually she puts a toothbrush and a change of clothes at his place. Soon she’s only going home to do laundry or to purge the fridge of rotting food, and it occurs to them, why don’t we just move in together?

So our intrepid couple does. It saves money, after all! They may even decide to spruce the place up, buying furniture on a “don’t pay for 12 months” sale. They get a dog. They start spending holidays with each other’s families.

Several years into this arrangement one of them gets antsy. Perhaps they have children together, perhaps they don’t. But one of them needs more. One of them needs commitment.

And so they have The Conversation. And they decide that they should tie the knot.

Our culture tends to believe that this order of things is a good idea. If you live together you will be able to tell if you’re compatible enough to get married. In fact, getting married without living together first seems irresponsible!

Research, however, shows that this hypothesis, while sounding smart, actually doesn’t work. Galena Rhoades’ study of 1000 married couples published in the Journal of Family Studies found that those who cohabited first were far more likely to have problems in their marriage and report less marital satisfaction. And the National Center for Health Statistics in the United States found that roughly half of couples who cohabited before marriage reached their tenth anniversary compared to 70% of couples who didn’t live together first.

Why the difference? I think it stems from how the relationship begins. Our threshold for deciding whom to date or whom to live with is quite a bit lower than our threshold for deciding whom to marry. But once you’ve been living together for two years, and you’ve got the dining room set, and you’ve got the dog, it becomes harder to split up.

Instead of deliberately deciding to get married, you’re sliding into marriage. And it often fails. In fact, couples who were already engaged before they cohabited saw far less of a difference in divorce rates than couples who cohabited before they committed to getting married. It’s the sliding instead of deciding that’s the problem. A good marriage requires commitment first.

That’s why cohabitation isn’t a trial marriage; it’s completely different, because you can’t, by definition, have a trial marriage.

A marriage says: I commit to you. I will work to ensure your happiness. You will become my priority. A “testing” cohabitation says: I will see if you make me happy. I will be judging and watching you. I will see whether you measure up. In marriage, the other person is your priority; in a testing relationship, you are your priority. And marriage only works if both parties put each other first.

Marriage is not based on seeing if someone measures up to make you happy; marriage is about giving of yourself and committing to one another. If you start off a relationship testing, you’re going into marriage with the wrong attitude.

A happy marriage isn’t about testing or convenience or saving money; it’s about sacrifice and commitment. And you can’t slide into that; it has to be deliberate, or it isn’t a love story that will last.