7.5 million U.S. couples, mostly 20-somethings are cohabitating today as a way to make sure they’ll stay together, in hopes of preventing future divorce. The reason is most of them grew up in the 1980’s when a lot of divorces took place. Millennials and Generation Y growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s for the first time saw a record number of divorces due to a chipping away at the stigma and, what’s more, no fault divorce laws coming into vogue across the nation. These generations want to stave off marriage in hopes of making sure the person they are living with is the one for them. Divorce is of course a financially and emotionally shattering event in one’s life. But there seems to be some controversy in whether or not living together before marriage prevents divorce. According to Clinical Psychologist Dr. Meg Jay of the University of Virginia, who in a New York Times article wrote of what she calls the “cohabitation effect,” a phenomenon of cohabitating couples getting married and becoming less satisfied than those who did not live together, and so are more prone to divorce. According to Dr. Jay instead of getting married 20-something couples merely move into the direction of cohabitation instead of making it a point to focus on, discuss and decide on their relationship and where it is going, what she’s termed “sliding, not deciding,” meaning couples just drift into cohabitation rather than making it a serious decision as perhaps couples in past generations might have.
Sliding works like this: sex leads to leaving a tooth brush at someone’s place, then some personal care products and sooner or later the couple has moved in together. “Mission creep” is another term used for the same phenomenon. The couple seems naturally to fall into cohabitation. But according to Dr. Jay research has shown that the sexes view cohabitation differently. Women see it as an avenue to marriage while men see it as a way to have a relationship. What’s more, Dr. Jay says that the standards they hold for a spouse aren’t as high as one they hold for a cohabitating partner. As the relationship develops a new stage will sooner or later crop up, what Dr. Jay calls “lock-in” which she defines as, “the decreased likelihood to search for or change to another option once an initial investment has been made.” Once the couple is established, they are splitting the bills, have a group of friends, and even have pets. It is harder to extricate one’s self. Also, entering into dating after you’ve been lodged into this type of relationship is scary. If the relationship at home is of a lower quality than one would have if one were looking for a marriage partner, it seems as though it’s easier to settle for what you have at home than to get rid of that person and set out to seek a spouse. So people in this group settle for what they already have, says Jay.
Jay argues that 20-somethings and others stay in mediocre relationships for years, not being really happy simply out of convenience and a fear of the unknown. She says relationships that would have lasted only a few months now drag on for years, and so in her view wastes those 20-something years. Still, cohabitation seems likely to stay, not only for social reasons, or fear of divorce, but also financial ones. Lots of 20-somethings having to forgo marriage for longer bouts of education just to be marketable in the job market have staved off marriage for career. Some 20-somethings are so overburdened with work and school that they don’t have time to develop their love lives. In this sense, a default mode or staying in a non-traditional or even a non-monogamous relationship in order to get one’s needs met while still keeping one’s grades up and earning a paycheck could be more practical for 20-somethings. A whole shift in how people engage in their love lives is not based merely on the younger generation experiencing their parent’s divorce but in shifts in our economic system and other factors as well. People are also living longer today. Being married to one person for the rest of one’s life is looking less and less like an attractive option. What once only lasted a few decades can now go on and on for even half a century or more. There are many more options open today for young people due to the proliferation of internet dating and dating apps. What’s more, a generation of young women, college educated and able to support themselves are in a peculiar situation. Many don’t see themselves supporting a man. They aren’t tethered to men for financial support and so can choose and steer the course of their own romantic relationship with far less of the stigma that once occurred in the past. Dr. Jay may be on to something in one sense. But there also may be many more factors at play complicating the issue. Some psychologists and others are calling this the end of marriage. Others believe marriage will only change. Some are proposing different scenarios such as an open marriage, marriages that expire after a certain number of years but that can be renewed, even situations such as “monogamish” where couples have a few rules about when they can stray outside of the marriage. How marriage plays out in America in the future is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear, we are at the beginning of a tremendous transformation in this category of life that isn’t projected to change anytime soon. For more pick up a copy of the book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter- and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Dr. Megan Jay.