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The Cohabitation Question

Should we move in together before we get engaged?  Or should we get engaged first?  Will our decision about this affect whether we stay together or not?  These questions pop up quite a bit in the media.  Various surveys and opinions are floated about in attempts to address the issue of cohabitation, with the implication that this decision may determine the ultimate survival of your relationship.  PsychCentral interviewed me recently, asking for my opinion on these questions which are faced by so many couples.  I had a chance to reflect more deeply and realized what a red herring cohabitation can be.

For couples, the central questions are not whether the order of events will make a difference in your relationship (e.g., whether to move in together before or after getting engaged).  The keys are how you feel about your partner and relationship, and what you do with that.  Here are some crucial questions that are good to ask yourself at any point in a relationship, but especially when considering long-term commitments.  Remember, at least the first 6 months of a new relationship can be misleading due to the honeymoon effect, so better to wait at least 9 months before thinking seriously about these:

How do I feel with this person in general?
Is s/he responsive to me?  Does s/he accept influence from me?
Is s/he there when I reach out and need him/her?
Does s/he hear me when I’m scared, hurt or sad, and can s/he help relieve my distress?
Do I feel valued and that what I have to say matters?
Do I feel emotionally safe to talk about anything?  To say what I really feel or wish for, even if my partner may disagree?
Do we learn from each other and grow as a couple?

These are essential and worthwhile questions to ask of a relationship; even one negative answer deserves to be discussed. The questions are all about safety and connection, both of which are the foundation of any relationship. If you can’t discuss them productively, that might be a good reason in itself to seek couples therapy.  By the way, you can reverse all the above questions and think about how they might relate to your partner’s feelings about you (though you’d have to check with your partner to find out for sure!).

In the course of evaluating whether the time is right to live together, partners may appeal to statistics or studies to justify their own wishes or values. Similarly, it can be tempting to quote friends, or family, or “most people.”  Unless the evidence is really clear-cut and has a serious impact (e.g., second hand smoke is bad for babies and kids) third party justification risks short-circuiting the more important fuller discussion of values, feelings, etc.  In the case of cohabitation vs. engagement the evidence is confusing, poorly understood, and far from clear-cut.  Older surveys that are frequently cited have been called into question by more recent surveys, and it is not even clear that the conclusions often drawn are supported by any of those surveys. This is where I think trying to answer the question of living together versus engagement or marriage can be a distraction from what really needs to be talked about and considered in the relationship.

I think appealing to surveys can also be a red-herring at the level of public discourse, media debate, and  punditry, for two reasons.  One, it distracts from the importance of partners considering kinds of relationship questions I have suggested above. And two, it runs the same danger seen in the couple’s context of clouding a broader and deeper discussion of values by resorting to purported “facts.”

Of course, it may be that you and your partner actually do have conflicting beliefs or values about the question of whether or or not to live together before getting engaged or married.  In that case the discussion of cohabitation is not just a red herring.  Those beliefs and values need to be worked through together.   As with any difference or conflict, what really matters is slowing the discussion way down and fleshing out the underlying meanings, values and feelings for each partner.  For example, one person might be afraid that moving in together before engagement would set a “partial commitment” trajectory, or is morally wrong, or would not be accepted by his or her family.  The other might fear that engagement before living together would be premature and would not allow a realistic appraisal of their relationship.   Coming to terms with such differing views as a couple would involve having a dialog in which each partner feels safe enough to express his or her thoughts and feelings, and where each partner can hear the other’s points of view even if they don’t agree.  Once the details of the underlying values and feelings are spelled out and understood by both people, figuring out how to make the necessary decisions together should be much smoother, with less potential for future conflict, resentment, or changes of heart.

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