It’s hard not to have myriad expectations when moving in with a significant other, but there are only two ways the gingerbread-cookie house you create together can crumble: either it becomes a strong foundation to share a life together forever and a day, or it collapses into one giant garbage heap of resentment.
And these days, more women are willing to risk the latter happening than ever before. Forty-eight percent of “first unions" for women aged 15 to 44 were cohabiting unions, according to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, whose lead author said shacking up before getting hitched was a “ubiquitous phenomenon now." What’s more, some 40 percent of those unions led to marriage within three years. Researchers attribute the shift to certain cultural and economic influences, from the sexual revolution to the convenience of sharing bills. More young people also want to fulfill career goals and personal expectations before getting married than in previous decades.
“Completing schooling, establishing oneself at work, and being emotionally ‘ready’ to be a partner are various prerequisites people seem to think they need prior to marrying," says Sharon Sassler, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, who is writing a book on cohabitation before marriage. “So the age at marriage has risen to ever greater ages, but the age at first union—now cohabitation—has not."
For many couples, particularly young ones, the idea of marriage isn’t even put on the table when they decide to cohabitate—despite the fact that living together comes with many of the same plusses and pitfalls as being betrothed. The biggest motivators are often convenience and saving money living under one roof rather than two. Nowadays, cohabiting couples can reap health-insurance benefits that only marrieds were entitled to as recently as 1994—a boon to freelancers and entrepreneurs who might otherwise have to pay an exorbitant amount for individual-care plans.
If a couple is already living in the same city where real estate is highway robbery, the reasons for moving are often as follows: We already spend most nights together and argue over whose place to sleep at, so we might as well get our own place and save a considerable amount of money in the process. Most important, we love each other—or at least we really like each other.
That’s essentially how the decision-making process went for Caitlin Smith, 25, who met her boyfriend shortly after moving to New York City two years ago and taking an editorial assistant job at a fashion magazine.
“I was constantly moving from one Craigslist apartment to the next," says Smith. “Eventually I was like, Okay, this is ridiculous; I should just move in with my boyfriend. And he agreed. It was a significant decrease in rent on both ends." Marriage, she says, was “never something we really talked about."
Other couples who move in together don’t necessarily want to get married, but they want to see if marriage might someday be an option.
“We don’t talk about what our kids’ names are going to be or anything like that," says Sofia Vargas, 23, who has been dating her 25-year-old boyfriend for three years and living with him for six months. “I do feel like that’s a goal for both of us but it doesn’t need to be talked about, and neither one of us wants to jinx it."
In other words, she’s in it to win it, but she’s not “planning her life around it."
One woman with a few more years (and more relationships) under her belt recommends test driving cohabitation before getting married.
"I lived with a couple of different guys for three years and two years respectively and might have ended up married to one of them had I not tried them on for size," says Alison Deilke, 46, who lives in Washington with her husband of 21 years and their son. "Many people think those little irritating things our significant others do can be changed, but in reality they can't."
Meredith, 28, didn’t have a ring on her finger when she decided to move in with her boyfriend, Graham, but they had talked about spending the rest of their lives together. Even then, their relationship was put through the ringer when they did move in together.
An obsessively tidy person, Meredith was reassured by Graham’s neatness (relative, at least, to his former roommates) and assumed that his housekeeping skills would be up to her standards.
“I was surprised that I was so annoyed when they weren’t, because that’s such a cliché," says Meredith, who silently did his dishes for the first few months they lived together, letting her feelings fester until she exploded, hurling all but the remote control in his direction.
Now he works harder on housework and she works harder to communicate her frustrations even on the most trivial matters. Still, other things have changed.
“There’s no mystery anymore," she says, without even the slightest hint of disappointment.
Clearly Meredith has come to terms with this inevitable progression in her relationship, though all of my friends who live with their significant others have griped about things becoming less mysterious, less romantic, and less sexy. After the initial excitement of nesting wears off, they tell me, a platonic elephant in the room slowly takes its place.
Of course, there’s a psychological reason for this, which is that humans are prone to hedonic adaptation, or an innate capacity to change and adapt to most life experiences.
“No relationship can sustain a level of high passion forever," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of The Myths of Happiness, which dedicates an entire chapter to the role of hedonic adaptation in partnerships. But living together can hasten the adaptation process because it’s harder to preserve novelty when you’re sharing a living space with someone, not to mention a toilet.
“I hope you feel comfortable hearing each other poop," my friend offered after I told her I was moving into a rather small apartment with my boyfriend. She might as well have added hearing each other vomit and a host of other stomach-churning noises we human beings can make in the bathroom.
I’m no prude when it comes to bodily functions, but in a few short weeks, I’m losing my cohabitation virginity—and expecting both the best and the worst.
I have the same high hopes for the relationship that most people do when they first move in, except a part of me is crippled with fear that they may well be smashed into a million little pieces, along with one of my ceramic lamps.
Living together with a partner before marriage may be an “ubiquitous phenomenon," but that doesn’t make it any less of a big deal.
Let’s face it: I’m about to get cozier with someone than I’ve ever been before, and while we both want that now, there will likely be some nights in the future when we would rather sleep on the fire escape than in the same bed. Hedonic adaptation will invariably take its course, making us vulnerable to the perils of familiarity—taking each other for granted, for instance, or getting bored of one another. There may be nights when he’d rather take out the trash than have sex, or mornings when I may look at him and think, God, he’s not nearly as cute as the neighbor. Hell, there’s a chance I could resort to Gwynneth Paltrow’s favorite trick to smooth over an argument, only to come home that same day to find the bastard watching porn.
Next to marriage or having a child, moving in is one of the biggest commitments a couple can make. Sure, you can extricate yourself from the situation, but not without dividing up all your shared property, like that expensive couch you paid to have reupholstered after the cat you adopted together peed all over it. And let’s not forget the cat, of course, or the memories and the promises. All that goes out the window with the couch.
Still, a lot of good things can come from this commitment, like teamwork and deep emotional intimacy, or an even crazier commitment to spending the rest of your lives together.
But there’s no need to freak out too much about the whole thing. As Woody Allen proclaimed in Annie Hall, “A relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies."