By: Kellen Kaiser
I recently moved in with my new boyfriend. I was interested then to read the Atlantic’s article about the different expectations men and women have regarding cohabitation. It added to the “living together will keep you single” trope by saying that a number of women, who think the man they are living with will marry them someday, are wrong. They framed it by asking whether respondents, 18-26 in age, are “completely committed” and “almost certain” their relationships are permanent. Commitment and permanence are strongly associated with marriage. They may as well have asked- so are ya’ll going to get married someday or not? More of the women studied think it’s headed in that direction.
The article has a tone of warning about it. Look around, it says, are you in one of those relationships right now? If not, beware lest you fall into this trap. There’s even advice given- talk about commitment before moving in- get on the same page- don’t slide into marriage. Being on the same page is great but unless you have bi-monthly check-ins it might be difficult.
Ultimately you can’t control other people. They may say one thing and mean another. How many of the men studied would fess up similarly to the ladies with whom they are involved? They may mean what they say at one point and not another. Relationships are journeys. People change throughout the time they spend together. Commitment is a sort of defense against that inevitability but it too can waver over time. Even marriage is hardly a guarantee of permanence these days. The most troublesome part of the study for me was the near 20% of married respondents who were also on the fence.
While making the leap under these circumstances may seem inadvisable and naïve, I did it with knowledge of the possible consequences; I’d heard before that people who live together before getting married are less likely to tie the knot and more likely to divorce if they do. In fact, I knew first hand. I lived with my Ex for three out of five years of our relationship, during which I assumed I was headed towards marriage (because he said as much). Before making a similar leap again into “living in sin,” I asked myself -was it the living together that had done us in? A preview is not always a good thing. That being said, men aren’t the only ones who’d like to taste the milk first, so to speak. I, personally, would rather know what I’m getting into- it’s why I don’t buy clothes online.
What of the women who are in these relationships with men who don’t feel the same way? The 15% who feel “completely committed” while their men can’t say the same and the 13% who are “almost certain” when their fellows aren’t, how should we feel about them? Pity? Consternation?
You might call them hopeful. Wanting to move in sounds positive. Who wouldn’t want to take it to the next step? That next step that everyone’s mom keeps telling you is the Promised Land.
You could say there’s more pressure on women to get married and settle down and so we delude ourselves into seeing possibility when it’s absent. Perhaps men are more hesitant to be vulnerable since they are taught it is a weakness. It puts you out on a limb to say these things, “completely committed” or “almost certain.” They are verbal leaps of faith. They offer up the opportunity for heartbreak and disappointment.
Marriage is totally scary and without significant social pressure folks are less likely to want to do it, especially when they see the current success rate. Maybe they are even less likely if they can get all the same perks by cohabitating. The generation in the study is one raised in the era of divorce, an upbringing that has made some people more serious about marriage and others more avoidant.
The example in the article is a friend of the authors who breaks up with a non-committal boyfriend of five years. She sets an ultimatum and when he falters, moves on. It sounded like agency on her part actually. She probably got to the “marrying age” when most of her peers were coupled, with kids, and decided she wanted that for herself; which is within her rights, as much as it is within his to be honest with his feelings when the ultimatum arrives. You can’t pressure someone into loving you and pressuring someone to commit is relatively the same.
You can formalize the process. The two life paths of cohabitation vs. commitment were like the organic vs. the formal. Marriage is in its essence a formality- a set of rules, a contract, official papers, ceremony. It is perhaps in the fullest form of that definition when someone is in fact uncommitted despite the terms implied- say when in someone else’s bed.
So is the answer then to try and hold out on them? The same basic theory as withholding sex that ends with me not getting laid (lose-lose in my opinion) but with housing? For my own good, (which assumes marriage is still the ideal outcome), I should delay personal gratification in order to tease out commitment from my mate?
Maybe I’m not the marrying type. I don’t see the value in avoiding cohabitation for the sake of some future probability. The man I marry will have to live with me for a long time so he’d better get used to it early. On the other hand maybe that is the sort of thinking that together with other decisions will combine to make my life different than the normative one. I’m more okay with that than most. Maybe ladies need to ask themselves how important marriage is and how many of our decisions we are willing to make on the basis of increasing the likelihood of it happening.
I am trying to go into it with my eyes open this time. While I would claim to be “committed,” I wouldn’t say I’m “almost certain.” Very little is certain in life, other than change being constant and death being at the end. My strategy is to try and avoid things that are some sort of investment towards future dividends because that led to resentment in the past. I could live in fear or even break-up with someone I love to try and prevent heartache in the future or forestall some outcome I find unideal. Life is a set of managed risks and we are better off being aware of which ones we are taking and how risky they in fact are. Maybe it’s my non-traditional upbringing but I say “follow your bliss.” Maybe you won’t end up married but then again maybe you won’t end up divorced either.