Is It A Bad Idea to Move In Together Before Marriage? More Millennial Couples Are Doing It

Ivan Andreich Laevsky, the restless, 28-year-old protagonist in Anton Chekhov’s novella The Duel, is bathing in the sea with his friend Samylenko, a military doctor, when he asks a serious question.

“Let’s say that you’ve fallen in love with a woman and your path has converged with hers; you’ve lived with her, let’s say, for more than two years and then, as these things happen, you’ve fallen out of love and have begun to feel that she’s become a stranger to you. What would you do in this case?”

Everything about his lover, Nadezhda Fyodorovna, has grown to irritate him. “It’s reached the point where it’s so macabre, that if someone were to tell me, let’s say, that I’m obliged to live with her for even one more month, then I would probably shoot a bullet through my forehead,” he explains to his friend. “And at the same time, I can’t leave her. She’s solitary, she doesn’t know how to work, I don’t have any money and neither does she…”

Despite the novella’s setting in 1891 Caucasus, Ivan Andreich’s predicament is eerily modern: What happens when you move in with someone you love, before marriage (scandalous then, less so now), and you fall out of love, so far out that everything about your partner infuriates you? 123 years later, the-once momentous step of Moving In Together has reached an unprecedented level of casual, but Ivan Andreich’s fundamental question has not yet been answered. What does moving in together mean for relationships?

In the past half-century or so, cohabitation in the US has increased by more than 1,500 percent. In 2012, 7.5 million unmarried American couples lived together, and it’s certainly higher now. Most millennials in their twenties will live with someone with whom they're romantically involved at least once.

The contemporary appeal of cohabitation is obvious. Above all, it makes smart financial sense, as the economy continues to drag and student loans financially paralyze thousands of recent (and not-so-recent) grads. Typically, the choice makes itself: Split a cozy one bedroom with a boyfriend, or pay the same amount for a closet in a four bedroom with three strangers and a territorial ferret. Moving in with a partner is no longer viewed strictly as a Big Step Forward in a relationship; rather, it’s become more casual, a fiscally responsible stratagem. Shifting cultural views play a part here, too. Increasingly liberal attitudes towards sex and marriage, plus easier access to birth control, have rendered pre-marriage cohabitation significantly less scandalizing, for the most part.

A critical RAND study, “Cohabitation and Marriage Intensity: Consolidation, Intimacy, and Commitment,” authored by sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris, investigated these “intimate relationships that progress towards co-residential conjugal unions.” The study ultimately found that these relationships no longer imply marriage, and that co-habiting young adults have far lower level of commitment than peers who are married.

Of course, the prospect of marriage still lurks behind every move-in with a partner, regardless of how nonchalantly the decision was made. Yet differing expectations of the what the move-in means for each partner can be an enormous source of tension.

Elizabeth, a 25-year-old professional living in Manhattan, just decided to move in with her boyfriend of a year. A factor she considered, while secondary, was whether or not he was The One. “To move in with a guy, I have to know that he is at least open to a future,” she said.

“Future,” of course, means marriage. “If the guy knows for sure he doesn’t want to get married, then I think you are both wasting your time,” Elizabeth said. “You have to be ready to say, ‘OK, this might be it,’ because it’s a huge pain to move, and to live in close quarters.”

She paused, before adding, “And I think we are especially mean to boyfriends when we are comfortable with them.”

The RAND report found that 41 percent of men were not “completely committed” to the girlfriends with whom they were currently living, compared to 26 percent of women saying they weren’t committed. Judging by the disparity in long-term intentions between men and women, move-ins are likely to cause further rifts in an already feeble relationship and derail the path towards marriage, despite popular notions that the move is a step towards marriage in the standard relationship trajectory.

In 2001, a survey conducted by the National Marriage Project found that roughly 50 percent of twentysomethings agreed with the following 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.” According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Americans viewed cohabitation as a decisive move towards eventual marriage.

An unfortunate result of increased co-habitation among millennials is this: Breaking up is more excruciating. The idea of moving out and apartment hunting, or being stuck with an ex until a lease is up, can be so daunting that weak relationships remain intact far longer than they should. Add a layer of paralyzing guilt when a partner moved to your city (where he knew no one) to be with you, and the idea of breaking up seems even more impossible.

Sue, a 23-year-old teacher, has lived with her boyfriend in Detroit for a year, in a three bedroom with one other roommate. “I made him move to a city where he didn’t know anyone or any of the neighborhoods….it wasn’t something that we really discussed, although if he didn’t live with me he probably wouldn’t have been able to live independently without getting help from his parents.”

When asked if she ever felt trapped in the relationship when they were living together, she said that she hadn't, adding, "But I definitely think I’d work a little bit harder to make things work given a major issue... which could be good or bad.”

It can be very bad. Many couples who moved in too quickly wind up feeling trapped in toxic relationships, a sentiment that is exacerbated if they break up and aren’t able to move out, for financial or logistical reasons. "Entranced by true love's dazzling combination of hormones and ignorance, we may commit to sharing a home with our beloved before we've thought through the consequences," writes life coach and best-selling author Martha Beck for CNN.

Rachel, a second year law student who moved in with her boyfriend just before beginning law school in August 2012, didn't quite think through the consequences. She had informally lived with her boyfriend before — in New Orleans, for around two months — but it hadn't been official; he didn't pay rent.

When they moved in together for real, their motivations were different, a common source of conflict for young couples who drift into cohabitation. “I wanted to live with him partly as a way to save money; I was able to get a much nicer, larger place for much cheaper,” she said. “And even more because I was nervous about moving to a new city where I wouldn't know anyone. I pretty much knew we weren't going to end up together or anything.”

Her boyfriend, however, interpreted the move as a natural step towards a more serious relationship. He quit his job to move to DC, so he was unemployed. He planned on finding a job; this never happened. While Rachel labored away at her first year of law school, which is notoriously grueling, he sat at home all day, usually drinking.

Inevitably, the relationship began to dissolve about one month in. “I wanted to have the crutch of having my best friend around when I needed him,” Rachel said. “I also wanted to be single when that was convenient because I was interested in meeting other guys.” They officially broke up five months later, when he was financially able to move out.

The need for a “crutch” grows ever more pervasive, as young couples move to new cities together, where one partner might not know anyone. Rachel insisted she would never, however, move in with someone for “friendship security reasons” again. “In the future, I wouldn't move in with a boyfriend unless I felt that there was at least a chance that we would eventually get married. If we were pretty serious, and I didn't see that status changing, then I would happily move in with someone.”

Elizabeth, who just recently made the decision to move in with her boyfriend, is exercising unusual caution — they won’t be living together for another year. Part of her reluctance to rush derives from her background. Growing up in Mexico, she found people were much more socially conservative and felt, generally, that couples should wait until engagement or marriage before living together.

While some young couples in New York insist on waiting until engagement before moving in, the possibility of marriage is usually considered, however vague and far off it may feel.

For Elizabeth, the decision was nerve-wracking. “It freaks me out because once you move in together, you can’t undo it.”

Yet that, too, is changing; couples are undoing, redoing, moving in, moving out, and, weirdly, lasting. Moving in can be a decision that makes sense in a given moment, with no inevitable bearing on the future.

Phillip and Victoria, a young couple in Philadelphia, lived together for 14 months before mutually deciding they should live apart. Before moving in together, they had dated for 10 months, though they started looking for apartments together after six months, both at the age of 22. They had just graduated college and were working in the city, miserable living at their respective parents’ houses in the suburbs, which were an hour away from each other. Finding a place together in the city made sense for many reasons: more independence, more social scene, and no more hour commute to hang out.

Their recent decision to live apart, after 14 months of living together, is unconventional because it is not a break-up; it just makes sense for them right now, in this moment, and thus defies the normative relationship trajectory. “I think if we were financially capable of getting our own places in the first place or if we had friends that were also looking for places in the city, we would’ve just done that, but at the time we only really had each other,” Victoria said. She’s just started her first year of law school, and, anticipating the paralyzing stress of her first year, knew she didn’t want to take it out on her boyfriend. “I know my personality type doesn’t bode well with sharing my space with someone,” she said. “Next year is going to be so stressful. I think Phillip is just trying to play video games and make fragrant Indian food as he pleases, without getting yelled at or having to worry about upsetting me.”

This isn’t to say that packing up their apartment wasn't difficult. “I’m sure the first month or so will suck,” she said. And as it was Phillip’s idea initially to spend time living apart, she’s certain she’ll “probably use the whole situation when [she’s] drunk and trying to pick a fight.” But she recognizes this decision will add longevity to their relationship.

“People have found it confusing because the expectation of people in serious relationships that live together is that they'll live together forever,” Phillip said. “I believe that a loving couple can thrive whether they live together or not.” 

“People have found it confusing because the expectation of people in serious relationships that live together is that they'll live together forever,” Phillip said. “I believe that a loving couple can thrive whether they live together or not.” 

At the end of The Duel, Ivan Andreich has not found the courage, or the momentum, to exert agency in his life, to truly assess and understand his relationship, rather than its circumstances. He begrudgingly stays with Nadezhda Fyodorovna, in their small home. Inevitably, “that same smell of ironing, powders and medicines, the same hair-curlers every morning” will continue to irritate him until he is driven mad. In the final scene of the text, Ivan Andreich watches a boat sail towards the horizon:

"It flings the boat back," he thought; "she makes two steps forward and one step back; but the boatmen are stubborn, they work the oars unceasingly, and are not afraid of the high waves. The boat goes on and on. Now she is out of sight, but in half an hour the boatmen will see the steamer lights distinctly, and within an hour they will be by the steamer ladder. So it is in life. . . . In the search for truth man makes two steps forward and one step back. Suffering, mistakes, and weariness of life thrust them back, but the thirst for truth and stubborn will drive them on and on. And who knows? Perhaps they will reach the real truth at last."

Image: Fotolia

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