Larry James' BLOG

Friday, June 14, 2013

Cohabitating Couples: Commitment is Key

Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D., Guest Author

In my Q and A column, Living Together Before Marriage, I described two approaches to marital conflict: The approach of the Buyer and the approach of the Renter. To help you understand why it may be difficult for you to complain to your spouse as soon as problem arises, I return to that analogy.

cohabitationWhen a couple live together before marriage, they tend to be “renters.” By that I mean that they view their relationship much as they would renting an apartment. If something goes wrong in an apartment, the landlord is expected to fix it – if it needs paint, the landlord paints it; if it needs repairs, the landlord does the repairing.

In other words, the renter is not responsible for making the apartment suitable for living – the landlord is responsible. And if the apartment is not repaired, the tenant isn’t expected to fix the apartment himself, he simply moves to another apartment if he doesn’t like the one he is renting.

In the same way, couples who live together before marriage do not expect to make many changes to accommodate their lovers. The relationship is a test of how “livable” their relationship is, and if they were to find it uncomfortable, or if one were to complain much, it would mean that they would not be right for each other.

Those who live together before marriage tend to ignore conflicts until they become intensely negative. That’s why these relationships are notoriously abusive (as reported in a recent Justice Department study on domestic abuse). If these couples eventually marry, they carry their renter’s agreement into marriage, with the same tendency to ignore conflicts until they build up. Since the renter’s agreement does not promote healthy adjustment in marriage, or the sustaining of romantic love — the vast majority of these marriages end in divorce.

On the other hand, when couples marry before they live together, they tend to be “buyers.” Much like buying a house, these couples realize that if anything needs fixing, they will have to fix it – the sooner, the better. Their marriage is not a test of how livable their relationship is, but rather, it’s a commitment to make their relationship livable. That means that when a problem first surfaces, they go right to work fixing it, knowing that if they don’t fix it soon, it can lead to an even bigger problem later.

HisHersThis is where my approach to building love in marriage makes a crucial point – unless you and your spouse build your lifestyle together like a buyer, where you change your own behavior to make each other happy and avoid making each other unhappy, you will destroy the love you once had for each other. The buyer’s approach to a relationship helps sustain the feeling of love because each spouse changes his or her own behavior to meet each other’s needs and avoid hurting each other. The renter’s approach, on the other hand, expects the other person to accept one’s behavior as it is, and that, in turn, leads to a loss of love and eventual divorce.

interesting study was conducted by Hall and Zhao (Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada, Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1995: 421-427). They write: “The popular belief that cohabitation is an effective strategy in a high-divorce society rests on the common-sense notion that getting to know one another before marrying should improve the quality and stability of marriage. However, in this instance, it is looking more and more as if common sense is a poor guide.
Their study showed that cohabitation itself was shown to account for a higher divorce rate, rather than factors that might have led to cohabitation, such as parental divorce, age at marriage, stepchildren, religion, and other factors. In other words, other factors being equal, you are much more likely to divorce if you live together first.”

DeMaris and MacDonald (Premarital Cohabitation and Marital Instability: A Test of the unconventionality Hypothesis, Journal of Marriage and the Family, May 1993: 399-407), echo Hall and Zhao. They found that the unconventionality of those who live together does not explain their subsequent struggle when married. There is something about living together first that creates marital problems later. They write: “Despite a widespread public faith in premarital cohabitation as a testing ground for marital incompatibility, research to date indicates that cohabitors’ marriages are less satisfactory and more unstable than those of noncohabitors.”


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Living together may prove compatibility for a moment in time, but it provides no evidence for your happiness together over a lifetime. The only way you can have that happiness and compatibility is if you agree to take each other’s feelings into account every time you make a decision. And that’s what people who marry after not having lived together are highly motivated to do.

Larry’s NOTE: Is it a good idea for couples to live together before getting married? 75% of people between the ages of 18 and 49 said it was a good idea. Only 57% of people 50 years old plus said it was a good idea. How did “Not a good idea” rate? 23% of people between the ages of 18 and 49 said it was not a good idea, while only 40% of people 50 years old plus said it was not a good idea. Source: Survey of 1009 respondents 18 of age and older conducted by SSRS, April 10-14, 2013.

harley1Copyright © 2013 – Willard F. Harley, Jr. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. – Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D. is best known as author of the internationally best selling book, “His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-proof Marriage.” Dr. Harley earned a Ph.D. degree in psychology from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1967 and has been a Licensed Psychologist since 1975. Visit his Website at:


CLoveLOGOLarry James is a professional speaker, author, relationship coach and an award winning nondenominational Wedding Officiant. He performs the most “Romantic” wedding ceremony you will find anywhere. Something NEW about relationships is posted every 4th day on this Relationships BLOG.

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