Dating, Si; Cohabiting, No?

Dating, Si; Cohabiting, No? April 30, 2011


Yesterday, I was impressed to see so many readers celebrating the royal wedding as a validation of marriage. At First Things, Meghan Duke takes a slightly different approach: she sees it as a rebuke to the practice of permanent cohabitation:

“It’s probably best that they live together before making a commitment,” one random fellow interviewed by the AP opined. According to anonymous “Royal commentators,” cohabiting on and off with his girlfriend has put Prince William “in a better position than his father to make his marriage work.”

It’s easy to see the argument: This is a practice run and everyone knows that practice makes perfect. It’s a time to figure out finances and who will do the dishes four days a week, to learn conflict negotiation and perhaps even get a jump start on parenting. According to the National Marriage Project’s 2010 State of Our Unions report, a rapidly increasing number of couples take this approach. Today, more than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by a period of cohabitation.

The trouble is, cohabitation isn’t really practice for marriage. As any athlete can tell you: As much as you train, it never completely prepares you for the race. You’ll never perfectly simulate in practice the nerves and adrenaline that kick in at the starting block. The race and practice are simply not the same experience, and neither are settling down and what used to be called shacking up.

As Dietrich von Hildebrand recognized in The Nature of Love, the value of personal love is not simply determined by the objective value of the beloved, but by the contribution of self the lover is willing to make to the beloved, how far he “is willing to go to fulfill the demands of a particular situation. The point at which a person says, ‘it is impossible,’ and at which the obstacles seem insurmountable to him so that he feels excused in his conscience is reached sooner by some and later by others.”

Without meaning to, Hildebrand makes a case — maybe not a good case, but a case — for cohabitation. Let’s agree that marriage is a permanent committment. Let’s also agree that some matches really are impossible — this is why people don’t choose spouses at random from the telephone directory. Who wants to live with a drunk, a nag, a sulk, a spendthrift, a Nintendo addict? During a courtship, canny lovers can conceal these deal-breakers — at least to a point. Living together, sharing a bathroom, it becomes impossible. Cohabiting, then, makes less sense as a form of practice than as a trial run. Playing house, as Duke calls it, might not tell you if the match is tenable, but it can at least provide some clues as to whether it’s untenable.

That’s my logic, anyway. Its strength is hard to test; as far as I know, no one’s compiled data on bad marriages avoided. The very idea sounds strange – kind of like Dan Quayle did when he said, “I demand credit for the things I did not do.” Duke reports that statistics suggest cohabiting does little good in those instances when the other partner does turn out to be a keeper:

At best, the State of Our Unions report suggests, the jury’s still out. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that cohabitation among engaged couples did not adversely effect marriages, couples who cohabitated before engagement were more likely to report lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce than those who lived together only after engagement or marriage. “What can be said for certain,” the report concludes, “is that no research from the United States has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.”

I haven’t read the study, so I don’t know whether it’s longitudinal in nature. If it represents no more than a snapshot of a particular point in these couples’ lives together, I’m disinclined to give it too much weight. The couples who cohabited would have gotten more used to one another — to playing house and its charms — than the ones who didn’t. Exhaustion — buyer’s remorse, the seven-year-itch, ennui, Weltschmerz, ἀκηδία, and every other shade of discontent so delicate that only Europeans have a name for it — would naturally set in earlier. Give the non-cohabiters a few years; they’ll catch right up.

By now, readers must have guessed that I have a certain soft spot for cohabitation, despite the Church’s prohibitions. I have to admit that I do, and for a very unscientific reason. The most stable, mutually supportive relationship I’ve ever been privileged to observe is the one between my mother and her boyfriend. They’ve been living together since 1994 and have no plans to marry. Without ever having quizzed them on why not, I doubt I’ll do them any injustice by guessing they’re afraid that formalizing their commitment will. cause it, somehow, to sour. “The piece of paper changes everything” — everyone’s heard that before. If, at its worst, it sounds superstitious, it may express, at its best, genuine self-knowledge.

But here’s what makes them exceptional: they dated for ten solid years before sharing a living space. Neither one was in any hurry to surrender her autonomy. At the very least, each could be sure that the other was not a clinger or a sponger. Maybe that’s the missing piece to the puzzle — if people can live apart, they can live together.

Elizabeth tells me I must sign my name, so I remain, & C., Yr. most humble, obedient servant,

Max Lindenman, Deputy Anchoress

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