Most of the time, unsolicited advice falls on deaf ears. And perhaps it should.
Among the younger set, we adults get a deserved rap for being kind of pushy with our opinions. To be fair, we usually have a lot of good experience to back up our advice, and hopefully we’re sharing because we’re caring, not because were just busybody assholes.
The Great Recession has hit 20-somethings hard. They’re leaving college with a lot of debt, heading into a rough employment market, stuck living at home far longer than they’d hoped, and delaying marriage for plenty of reasons including an honest hard look at their economic options right now.
There’s plenty of pressure today for relationships to stay loose and undefined. Our new ways of communication — texting, FaceTime, social media, Tinder — redefine what it means to be “connected.” New rules have emerged: like if someone texts you and you don’t immediately respond, you’re either angry/displeased or you’re committing a huge social faux pas. The struggle is real.
I am so thankful I didn’t grow up in a world where “dating” meant 24/7 social contact. To be “always on,” in constant contact by text or chat. No one should have to live a fishbowl life like that, yet it’s what I see in the lives of Millennials. The pressure to always respond, always reply, always be interested — I’m not much of an introvert, but even I find the idea alone exhausting.
Even when we were engaged, Coart and I were forced by the shape our grad-school lives and the state of 90s technology to make do with the limited time we had to see each other. An hour here or there, maybe studying at the same table in the library. Even the goodnight call was short. We eagerly awaited our wedding day because it would mark the last night we had to say “goodbye” in place of good night.
So I understand why marriage looks less ideal given the easy communication of our connected world, the uncertainties of a young adult’s life, and the bad examples set by the adults in their lives. (The overall divorce rate is 50%, though divorce rates for marriages in the 2000s are much lower so maybe the cautionary tales of the Boomers did some good.)
So given all these realities, it’s no wonder that moving in for a test drive before signing up for a lifetime of matrimony seems like the sensible thing to do.
Amid all these changes, and at risk of offering advice where it is unwanted, I want to make a case for why 20-somethings in a serious relationship should consider marriage over cohabitation.
I hate to be misunderstood, so please note: I’m not crafting a moral club to beat people with here; I’m trying to start a conversation. I think marriage has advantages that aren’t as easy to see from the outside.
That, and I’ve been married for 17 years, so I’d like to think I have a worthwhile perspective on what’s good about it.
1. It’s an institution that pictures community.
Marriage is more public than cohabitation, and that has some consequences. Even if you head to the JP to get hitched, your marriage will be witnessed by at least one other human being. And most married couples stick with the traditional path of a public ceremony, which means something to the community you’re in.
I have a friend who instead of saying “I was a bridesmaid” says “stood up in their wedding” when referring to participating in a friend’s ceremony. I like that. I think it communicates much more clearly what’s actually happening when we are involved in the wedding of a friend (though no one ever seems to bring this up): when I “stand up with” you up there, I’m offering my public commitment to support you in your commitment to a lifetime partnership.
Cohabitation offers little opportunity for people to step forward and say, “I’m with you.” Sure, you can have a tool shower or housewarming party, but it’s not the same. I realize that attending your wedding may not mean much either for my perseverance in caring about you and your marriage, but at least I’m going to be challenged to think about it.
In fact, I think one of the greatest downsides to “let’s just move in together” is that it robs the rest of us (your friends) of the chance to celebrate your partnership with a raucous wedding reception and terrible dancing three drinks in.
2. The psychological shift (in your own mind) that comes from making a public commitment to a “permament” partnership is worth it.
Marriage is a unique relationship. It’s more than being sexual partners. It’s more than being best friends. It’s not just a different flavor of “roommate.” It’s deeper than a financial partnership.
Marriage is for keeps.
When you take the steps necessary to incarnate your love for one another in a ceremony and legal document, you’re offered the chance to make this vow: I love you unconditionally. (That’s what the “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse” part of the traditional vows is getting at.)
Marriage is hard, not because it’s “marriage” per se but because deciding every day that I’m going to love my husband more than I did yesterday requires that I sacrifice some of myself for his benefit. It’s a daily challenge, not because he’s a trouble to live with (he’s not) but because I’m a self-centered, difficult human being and he’s in my space.
Knowing that I signed up for a lifetime of this, and that I promised I wouldn’t quit when I stop feeling like I love him is foundational to the deal. That’s what unconditional love means. It’s not unconditional until you run into something in the other person that erodes your chipper can-do attitude about how much you love him/her.
Cohabitation can develop really deep feelings of loyalty and partnership, and I do find great merit in “common law” recognition of long-held partnerships as marriages. (Because I think they are, by that point.) But when you’re young, just living together means you’re heading into some very difficult storms without much of an anchor. In fact….
3. Your support network can’t take you seriously if you aren’t clearly “seriously committed.”
A solid relationship that lasts will be a relationship grounded in a support network. That network has already been partially built by the time you get together, but it’s going to need more people to be effective across the length of your lifetime. Life is never about just you. Lone wolves (and couples) get eaten in this world.
It’s not that cohabitation strips you of your support network. Not at all. But I do think, lacking the confirmation of a marriage —that you’re serious about making this work— many of us more experienced married couples (who ought to be mentoring you) are less likely to fight for the survival of your relationship when you come to us weeping and angry and ready to throw in the towel.
Note that I said when, not if.
Truth is, cohabitation looks like “try before you buy.” And who am I to tell you to make the commitment if you aren’t sure yourself?
But once it’s made, once you’ve stated “before God and these witnesses” that you want to make a go of it for keeps, I’ve got better footing to encourage you to make it work and walk with you through the hard parts. (I’m assuming that we aren’t talking about domestic abuse or anything similarly destructive. That is a totally different conversation.)
Your relationship will face deep, difficult problems, because you are a broken, difficult person. Whether those problems wreck your relationship has much to do with how serious you are about making it through together and how much help you get from the people around you.
4. Living like you’re married without the commitment of marriage can load you down with emotional baggage and heavier expectations than you’re ready for.
The pressure of a joint household apart from a commitment to a united life can be suffocating. You still have to make all the same decisions of a married couple — whether you’ll keep your dishes or his, whether you’ll live near her workplace or yours, how you’re going to prioritize your spending to achieve mutual goals — and all of those decisions take time and thought and commitment to your needs as a couple.
And since you’re sleeping together, you’re also cementing a physical intimacy that generates deep emotional intimacy and vulnerability, but without affirming that should you “slip up” and create a life, you’ve thought through the ramifications of child-bearing, rearing (or aborting – not a choice I support, but among your options).
You’re binding together your lives, finances, career trajectories, health care options, vacation plans, budgets, student debt, and friend circles.
Undoing all of these connections now that you’ve melted things together will tear you into much worse pieces should the unthinkable happen and this partnership blow apart.
So why aren’t you getting married?
There are lots of great reasons not to get married: you’re too immature or emotionally unready, you’re undecided about this partner, you can’t afford to support yourself yet, your job or grad schoolwork takes away all the time you would need to foster a healthy relationship… to name a few.
But those reasons, if they are true of you, should equally warn you against creating all of the financial, physical, practical, and emotional bonds of a marriage apart from the actual commitment of a life together. In other words, get side-by-side apartments if you must. But you’re not ready to live together either.
Hey, it’s my view. It doesn’t have to be your view, and if you disagree with me, we are still friends. I won’t make it awkward, I promise. Everyone is always welcome at my table.
But I figured it was worth taking the time to explain what I think and why. And I’d love to hear your thoughts – drop me a comment.