No Commitment When Shacking Up

I can’t believe The New York Times, with its hugely liberal perspective, actually published an article on the downside of shack-ups.  I was stunned.  The article, titled “The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage,” gives some stats that are simply mind-boggling:

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages – and more likely to divorce – than couples who do not.

The issue lies in the shack-up itself.  When people decide to get engaged, there’s a lot of thought involved.  They realize, “Oh my gosh, I’m making a commitment.”  They talk about babies and families, and where they’re going to live.  None of that occurs when people shack up.  There’s no decision-making, only sliding.  Shack-up couples slide from dating, to having sex, to sleeping over, to bringing their things over, to being there most of the time, to shacking up.  There are no concrete decisions with rings and ceremonies and families involved.  The two people have not and do not talk about what they want, need, and expect from each other.

The article also discusses how cohabitors often have different, unspoken – even unconscious – agendas:

Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.  One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

You can see right there that shack-ups are just convenient and comfortable.  There is no desire for a connection on a deeper level.  A lot of people think, “Well, living together reduces costs.   It’s easy, and there’s no real risk.  If it doesn’t work, we’ll just break up.”   EXCEPT, they’ve already bought furniture and pets together.  A couple that thinks, “Maybe we will, maybe we won’t,” is not as dedicated as a one that says, “We do, we’ll commit, we’ll make it happen.”

It’s important to discuss everybody’s motivation: “I’m shacking up with you because…” or “My expectation is…”  As I’ve always told people on the show, you cannot have any expectations when you shack up.  It’s not a commitment.  Either one of you can do whatever you want at any given time, so expectations of marital behavior are silly, foolish, and self-destructive.  This is why there’s more mental illness, violence, and breaking up when people shack up.  Women especially start having more anxiety and depression.  They also experience more battering because their partners take their frustration and annoyance out on them.

Shacking up is not an intentional step — it’s just convenient.  There’s absolutely nothing of depth that people can count on.