Monday, April 16, 2012

Wouldn't It Be Nice

Article from the NY Times about the relationship between co-habitating and divorce.

I'm pretty sure most conservative Catholics have talked about this phenomenon--that living together before marriage leads to a higher chance of divorce. Obviously, anyone already against living together before marriage doesn't need further convincing, and anyone who isn't against it won't be swayed by arguments about selflessness before and after marriage, which is how the issue was always explained to me. Their highest priority is the "test drive;" if you can make it as a non-married couple living together, you can also make it as a married couple living together, and therefore avoid divorce.

But now it's in the New York Times, so everyone has to confront it. What was so interesting about this was that the higher rate of divorce was explained by something surprisingly concrete: settling, referred to as "sliding" in the article. Couples move in together to figure out if they like each other and some number of months or years later they get married because it's more cost effective than breaking up and moving out.

WHEN researchers ask cohabitors these questions, partners often have different, unspoken — even unconscious — agendas. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.
Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.  
Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.

As usual, a desire for more freedom and options actually leads to less freedom and fewer options, plus a lot of confusion and the Death of Romance. A girl I know, nominally Catholic, lived with her boyfriend for three years before getting married, and said after the wedding with fairly obvious disappointment: "It's exactly the same. There is no difference between now and before the wedding. Our life hasn't changed at all."

This was incredibly sad, too:

Jennifer said she never really felt that her boyfriend was committed to her.  “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife,” she said. “We had all this furniture. We had our dogs and all the same friends. It just made it really, really difficult to break up. Then it was like we got married because we were living together once we got into our 30s."

It can be discouraging to be dating in a world that assumes it's the responsible, adult thing to do to throw out all the "old rules." But at least there's no years-long wife audition with the payoff being a guy you only feel iffy about but end up married to for monetary considerations. That doesn't sound like progress to me. It sounds more like something out of a really terrible Victorian novel. Phew! No thanks.


  1. "a desire for more freedom and options actually leads to less freedom and fewer options"

    Have you read Isaiah Berlin's famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty"? It is a fairly quick read, and if you've recognized this point, I think you would find it extremely interesting.

    1. I've never heard of that. I'll check it out, thanks.