Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Household Stability and Cohabitation

22 … and he (the devil) leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever.

The household is the most basic institution of modern society and while many types make valuable contributions to society, only one that based on the physical union of woman and man propels society through generations. The intertemporal nature of this physical union may create a societal interest if some types of households produce better results, a more stable environment for raising children, and that stability results in children more able to contribute positively to society as they mature.

Cohabitation, living together in a long-term relationship as if a married couple, is one type of household.  While some couples that enter this living arrangement may not view it as a step towards marriage, many do.  If a relationship seems promising, why not take an important step toward marriage by living together for a while as a test run?  Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” explains that cohabitation has become a more common type of household (“The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage”).

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing.

Despite the logic of giving marriage a trial spin, cohabitation does not produce better results.

Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect (the added emphasis is mine to highlight an issue she discusses in her article but that I ignore).

Jay identifies two problems with cohabitation.  The first is called “sliding, not deciding.”  Cohabitation often begins because couples spending time together, sleeping together and then living together.  It just happens and without considering long-term commitment.  The second problem is lock-in, which Jay explains using the example of a credit card with a zero percent teaser rate and easy payments.  Thinking that it will be easy to pay down debt, consumers live high and then the 23% interest rate kicks in.  All the consumer can do is make the minimum payment.  Cohabitation has similar lock-in features, common friends, pets and furniture just to name a few.  Switching to a better option becomes expensive.

As a clinical psychologist, she properly and correctly writes

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

I love it when the best scientific theory matches gospel teaching.  As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I don’t have to be scientific, but in this case I can be both scientific and, more importantly to me, suggest that people follow gospel principles.  Avoid cohabitation and plan for marriage.  It is simpler, avoids a great deal of anguish, and while not perfect, works better than current alternatives. 

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