The Cohabitation Blues

June 19, 2013

Wilcox illoShould you move in with your boyfriend? That depends. Do you know he’s “the one?” Does he feel the same way about you? If so, and your engagement is just a matter of time, I think it can work very well. That’s what Mr. HUS and I did when we both moved to NYC after business school. An engagement would have felt a bit rushed, but we knew it was coming, so we lived together for a year first. In fact, we pooled all our resources from the start in joint accounts, and never looked back. It worked beautifully, and it was a great way to start our life together.

Studies show that living together before marriage is correlated to a greater likelihood of divorce, except in cases where the couple has already decided to marry.

The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way “to find out whether you really get along,” and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available studies on the effects of cohabitation are mixed. In fact, some evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.

Within the last few months I have witnessed two very messy breakups between couples living together, and in both cases the loss was much greater for the woman. Why? Because both couples had lived together 5 years or more, originally as a trial run to assess long-term compatibility, and because sharing expenses looked appealing.

Ultimately, however, the men decided they did not want to marry their roommates after all. Now in their early 30s and quite successful in their careers, they have seen their sexual market value rise considerably in the last five years. The women, both 32, are well past their peak fertility and now feel at a serious disadvantage getting back out there. Both had been expecting a ring at any moment, in a far too common cocktail of denial and delusion. Both were devastated.

In All Over But the Lease, Natalie Kitroeff at the  New York Times highlights some horrific breakups between couples living together in the city. Moving in together in NY is often expedient:

With rents that can bring a checking account to its knees, living together can seem the only sensible option. But if the relationship goes sour in the middle of the lease, that decision can turn out to have been a wild gamble after all.

… In New York, where people platonically share windowless rooms with strangers in a trade for subway access, cohabitation and commitment do not necessarily go hand in hand. Living together is often driven as much by practicality as romance. And when the relationship unravels, one or both parties have to walk away from an apartment as well as a lover. 

It’s also a risky highwire maneuver. Here’s how it unfolded for one couple:

Ms. Seale said Mr. Byhoff came home one evening and announced, without much fanfare, “I’m no longer attracted to you.”

With that, lovers became just roommates, with a hefty helping of history between them.

…“It was definitely awkward,” Mr. Byhoff said. “It’s just like, you’re in the bed facing a different way. There is nothing else you can do.”

They continued living together in what Ms. Seale described as a “weird purgatory” for a month before she moved out and he took over the lease.

During that time, said Ms. Seale, who was freelancing as a writer and acting, she would walk the dog they had bought together for eight hours a day, to avoid being in the apartment. 

Breakups rarely coincide with lease renewal, so the crisis of unexpected disruption seems inevitable. In the cases I witnessed, one man ran out on the lease and stopped paying rent, while his ex scrambled to find a new roommate in a one bedroom apartment. Definitely awkward.

In the other case, the man owned the condo, and had been collecting rent from the woman for 5  years, though of course the equity appreciation was all his. He’s sitting pretty, she’s out of luck. He gave her 30 days notice and crashed on a friend’s couch during that time rather than endure and perpetrate painful ending scenes. She was spared that humiliation, at least.

Ivana Tagliamonte, an agent with Halstead Property, says she has seen so many breakups that they almost seem a rite of passage for young New Yorkers. “It’s a life cycle for a lot of young couples in their early 20s,” she said. “They move in together, sign a lease together, and then the relationship doesn’t work out.”

Nor is it surprising that when the young and in lease fall out of love, shared real estate sometimes becomes a weapon. Ms. Tagliamonte said the worst case she had dealt with involved a couple who were sharing a studio for which only the woman had signed the lease.

Toward the end of the lease, the rent payments were so far behind that Ms. Tagliamonte, on behalf of the landlord, went to evict the couple. But when she got there, she noticed that the closets contained only men’s clothing. She realized that despite being the leaseholder, the girlfriend had moved out.

It’s not necessary to set up house together to “find out if you really get along.” There were no surprises or major discoveries when I moved in with my future husband – we already knew each other very well and had long ago agreed that we were highly compatible. Living together as a “trial run” offers little reward for a woman who is able to support herself. She removes any incentive for marriage when she skips Lover and goes straight to Wife. Don’t forget the #2 reason men delay marriage, according to the National Marriage Project:

They can enjoy the benefits of having a wife by cohabiting rather than marrying.

There are several other risks associated with living together:

1. Relationship Inertia

Couples who would not otherwise have married “slide” into marriage as a result of living together. It’s harder to end a relationship when you’re living with your partner.

2. Sunk Cost

“People may have a harder time cutting their losses when they think about all the time, energy, and money they put into the relationship, even cutting their losses will save them more heartache in the future.”

For women entering their 30s after years of living together, doubling down often feels like the only hope, even when hope is futile.

3. Opportunity Cost

It’s harder to meet someone new, and impossible to pursue someone new (or should be).

I highly recommend living together once you are both sure you’re on the road to marriage. I strongly advise against living together to see if you’re meant for one another. Take care of that before setting up house – otherwise you’re stacking the deck against marriage. Separating after cohabitation can feel a lot like a divorce. All pain, no gain.