A look at The Four Year Itch, the Guard Rails of Marriage, and The Case Against Premarital Cohabitation.

I’ve mentioned before that I am broadly opposed to premarital cohabitation. It’s the product of, among other things, my upbringing. Premarital sex was rarely mentioned because that would have meant talking about sex, but Mom was adamant about premarital cohabitation. Not everything she taught me stuck, but that one did. Her take on the issue was rather simple: If you’re far enough along to move in with someone, you’re far enough to marry them. If you’re not far enough to marry them, you’re not far enough along to move in with them. Breathtakingly simple as Mom has the tendency to be sometimes.

Of my three brothers, I’m the only one that stuck with that counsel. My brothers, though, at least waited until they were engaged and that was enough to pacify Mom. Clancy and I waited until we were actually married. Interestingly enough, Mom sort of reneged in my case, telling me not to let a desire to premaritally cohabitate get in the way of an awesome thing. As it turned out, Clancy was of the same mind on the subject that I was. Dad, who had never really voiced an opinion on the subject, disapproved of Clancy and I moving in together until I pointed out that we were talking about after our wedding. Clancy’s parents always respected her decision, though her sisters and cousins were somewhat derisive on the subject.

Clancy is the only person that I’ve ever dated and discussed the subject that agreed with me. Julie thought it was just one of my “weird things” and Evangeline was adamant about cohabitation being a part of the process that culminates in marriage. Eva lived with her now-husband prior to getting married and Julie lived with Tony for a few years before that fell apart. Though I have views on the subject, I’m not sure that there was ever enough conviction behind them to stick with them while watching someone I loved walk away. Fortunately, it never came to that.

We live in a different world than the one that my mother talked me against. One in which premarital cohabitation is the norm and the more traditional views of Clancy and I cutting somewhat against the grain. At least among our peers. I’ve never been positive that I was right on the subject. It was something that I’d never really had to confront. I used to have some great statistics about the likelihood of a marriage surviving when comparing those that cohabitated prior to marriage and those that did not, but my friend Rick (who has lived with his girlfriend for a long time with no marriage in sight) pointed out that those statistics can be marred by a number of other variables. For instance, premarital cohabitants are more likely to cut from slices of the population more likely to get divorced in general. People too poor to get married at first, for instance, are also often going to be poor enough that money is going to sink the wedding that they do have. Family-minded people are less likely to cohabitate and less likely to divorce. And on and on.

So with the world having changed, and with the possibility that I could be wrong, one thing that I have had to consider is whether or not I will carry the torch and warn my kids against premarital cohabitation. I believing in picking one’s battles and picking battles that you’re doing to lose will often hinder your fighting the battles that might otherwise be winnable. Warning your kids against any premarital sex may convince them not to engage in premarital sex but could also convince them that you are ridiculously out of touch and that they should ignore your advice on other subjects as well. So I haven’t been sure whether to put up a cursory fight on the subject of the appropriateness of premarital cohabitation or to just let that slide in favor of the areas that I might be able to get through. How important is it, really?

I’ve been thinking about that the last couple weeks and have come to the determination that it’s important enough. As with many things where my parents’ advice became wiser with age, I think that this is one of them. It’s more complicated than the picture that Mom laid out about cows and free milk, but it’s still a point worth making even if I (likely) lose on the subject.

The primary problem with premarital cohabitation is, in my view, that it allows couples to put off making decisions that need to be made. It can make things too comfortable to progress. It removes one of the final carrots between dating and marriage. Talk about how if a relationship doesn’t become a marriage because of cohabitation that it won’t become a marriage anyway is at once partially true and utterly beside the point.

I have become extremely suspicious of Sour Grapes arguments over the years. They’re too pat. For instance, the notion that if legalized prostitution is all that stands between a marriage working and falling apart that it can’t be a good marriage to begin with doesn’t ring true. It’s sort of like arguing if you need guard rails to stop you from driving off the cliff that you’re too bad a driver to be driving near cliffs to begin with has an element of truth to it, but it’s not helpful. People will drive near said cliffs and the damage done by a marriage that’s at a weak point with and without a prostitute in the picture can be vastly different. This isn’t an argument that prostitution should be illegal (I’m conflicted on the subject), but that there are tradeoffs on the balance of pros and cons.

The same is true of marriage more generally, where some argue that if you need a piece of paper to validate your bond that it can’t be that strong to begin with. Maybe, maybe not. But for serious-minded people, having that piece of paper changes everything. Four years in, I simply could not have left Clancy the same way that I left Julie. That doesn’t mean that I stayed in an unhappy marriage not worth saving (our marriage has never been like that), but it did force me to confront issues as they arose out of fear that if left unaddressed they could lead to a situation in which leaving might be an attractive option. The difference between being married and not being married is a significant one. That I acknowledge its significance in no way makes my marriage weaker than the next person’s. Rather, it demonstrates a respect for marriage that in my view makes my relationship stronger than an unmarried or married couple that views the institution as a “piece of paper.”

We are vulnerable to our surroundings. Someone in a moderately happy relationship that flirts with danger, so to speak, is more likely to tank than someone in a marriage’s down-period that sees his situation for what it is and denies all temptations. Even well-intentioned people will fall victim to temporary lapses in judgment. One of the tricks to avoiding an explosion is not to dance around in a powder keg with a cigarette lighter in your pocket. Not to allow yourself to get too comfortable with undesirable situations. Best case, you stay uncomfortable. Worst case, in a sudden need to break free you make a tragic mistake.

I spent some time a couple weeks ago counseling a friend getting out of a relationship that lasted four years. My ex-girlfriend Julie lived with a Tony for four years before it broke apart. Julie and I never lived together, but we nonetheless held strong for… four years. I read an article about the Seven Year Itch once that suggested that the pattern is actually four years. For some reason, that’s when relationships that have reached a point of stasis start to crater. I expect that if, during the ebb that often occurs after four years, you don’t have the guard rails of marriage that a lot of relationships that could otherwise make it won’t.

But the real danger is not in sidelining relationships that could evolve into marriage. I am actually willing to concede that most of the time the cohabitation-proponents are right. If a relationship is going to make it, premarital cohabitation probably won’t hurt your chances. Too much, anyway. The bigger danger is not in the relationships that otherwise might make it, but rather in the ones that won’t. The danger being that they still won’t work, but that they will take a lot longer not to work. And this will come to light after a lot more has been invested in the doomed relationship.

One of the benefits that the existence of marriage provides is a gut-check on the long-term viability of a relationship. It’s no mistake that in all three of the above cases, the cratering occurred when the man was wrestling with whether or not to propose. When he (I) decided not to, it meant not only the non-existence of a proposal but the end of the relationship. The perspective of the man being that if this wasn’t permanent, then he needed to find something that was. In the case of Tony and Clint, I believe that premarital cohabitation enabled stalling until they simply could not stall anymore. The women were waiting and getting somewhat impatient, the pressure was on, and they determined what in other circumstances what they would have determined a long time ago: this wasn’t a lifelong relationship. My case with Julie is slightly different because we weren’t living together, but the demands of college and the lack of firm footing in the world provided the same sense of not being forced to confront the unpleasant reality of sunk costs.

The primary danger in premarital cohabitation is that it allows people to put off making the decisions that need to be made. This is the case even when there is absolutely no bad faith on the part of the man. This is the case even when he genuinely loves her and is not particularly unhappy. It’s just that when he looks over the horizon he sees a void. Who wants to look at a void? No wonder he hasn’t been looking. He’s no fool.

But by withholding everything that marriage has to offer except the guard rails, he is allowed to avoid it until he can avoid it no more. But by saying that they will not live as a married couple until they are actually married, it forces potential issues sooner. This can mean that the situation is assessed and it is determined that the two people need to go their separate ways, it can mean that they want to move forward, or it can mean that they want to move forward but there are things that need to be addressed first. I believe that there are scenarios in which Julie and I, Tony and I, and Clint and Margaret could have made it if some of the underlying problems had been addressed before they had calcified with time and habit. Instead, the habits were formed, the issues left unaddressed, and the guard rails to make darn sure that they had to be addressed without consequences considerably more serious than finding a new apartment being accrued. But as it was, by the time they were noticed, it was too late.

So I plan to tell any sons and daughters that I may have to try as hard as they can to avoid that trap. I will particularly focus on my daughters. Not because I believe that women have some moral obligation to be the breaks, but because (a) women seem to be the ones pushing for cohabitation and (b) women far more often appear to be inflicted the most damage when it ends. In the case of (a), I think it’s a misguided belief that cohabitation is progress on the route to marriage (which it may be, but not necessarily) and a cohabitational relationship is more committed than one where separate apartments are kept. And I think that it’s her way of doing what the guy later does: Not ready for marriage yet, but want something now. As far as damage assessments go, I’m not sure if it has to be, but it certainly seems that way. The ones I’ve witnessed (not all of which I am going into here) seem to usually break this way. Further, the cohabitating couples that have not split up seem to be cases where if it did happen that he would much more likely land on his feet than she would. In fact, if I saw a breakup, I see him doing it rather than her. By virtue of the cohabitation and the lack of marital security, the man seems generally to possess more leverage. Indeed, the lack of the piece of paper seems almost uniformly to be his idea. That’s not a good arrangement. It’s probably often the case that if she had insisted that he fish or cut bait earlier that he would cut bait… but again, this is something that I believe is better confronted sooner rather than later.

None of this is to say that there are never cases where it can work out. Clearly it often does. I’m sure that there are even cases where something could have worked out but didn’t because one party or the other chose not to cohabitate. I’m particularly sympathetic to cases where you’re dealing with leases and have couples that are already engaged (especially when there is a planned date). I’m also sympathetic to their being times when one party or the other has to find a place to live rather suddenly and cohabitation makes the most sense. But if a couple is to embark on that path, I think that they really need to do so with an ending in mind. A sort of agreement that after six months or one year that they will make a decision one way or the other. Something in place to avoid getting too comfortable with the status quo to question it either in progress or dissolution.

I recognize that some of this may well be class bias. Most people I know are not financially in a position where they have no other options. So I try not to be too judgmental, though I also figure that with the kids that I may someday lecture on this that will not be the case. I also recognize that I am saying this as someone that squandered four years on a doomed relationship, squandered another two trying to get one off the ground, and knew within two weeks of meeting my wife that I wanted to marry her.

Category: Coffeehouse

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14 Responses to Playing House

  1. Kevin says:

    I think living together outside of marriage is a bad idea, no exceptions allowed. Your mom is right.

    (The only “exception” I would make is for common law marriage. Some people don’t believe that the state has to sanction their marriage for it to be valid. I respect that position, asinine though it may be, so if a man and woman move in together with the understanding that they are married, I am okay with that.)

    What really chaps my rear end about living together is when the women in these relationships insist that they are in committed relationships, every bit as committed as a marriage, but when their man finally proposes, they go overboard with the eighteen bridal showers, Vegas bachelorette parties, and destination weddings, and no one better ask why the wedding is such a big deal if they’re already so committed to each other.

    Living together an arrangement created by men to allow them easy access to sex with no strings attached. Why women think it’s a good idea, I’ll never understand. If he loves you as much as you think he does, he’d want to spend the rest of his life with you. If he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life with you, he’s really not that committed, now, is he?

  2. Transplanted Lawyer says:

    I disagree with this thesis. I’m in favor of cohabitation as pre-marriage. Your post, and commenter Kevin, both seem to presume that cohabitation is always done to be “marriage lite.”

    At least in my experience, living together before marriage, and as a “test” marriage, was a good thing. My then-girlfriend and I used the cohabitation period to confront the sorts of issues that you describe being forced to confront by virtue of being married. As I wrote in a different comment the other day, we knew the high points would be good — the question was whether we could get through the low points together. We did, and when we were both reasonably satisfied, we got married.

    From the time we moved in together to the time we were married was less than one year. I suspect you will find that fact significant.

  3. trumwill says:


    If my kid went into it with the attitude that you describe, I would actually be less inclined to object. That you were married within a year is very significant. I think that the best premarital cohabitation arrangements are ones where both sides clearly understand that it is a very temporary arrangement and that the couple will either get married (and not “eventually”) or they will go their separate ways. The most important thing is not to get comfortable with the arrangement. Sounds like you approached it with a much more level head than I usually see happen.

    That said… I still don’t see it as a good idea most of the time. It certainly can work out and very often does. But it can easily add substantially to the costs of breaking up. Julie lost eight years to well-meaning guys that didn’t make up their mind because they didn’t need to. Absent premarital cohabitation (with Tony) or the stasis of dependence (with me), the costs of failure would not have been so high and success actually would have been slightly more likely (with the guys confronting what was holding them back and perhaps addressing them before getting settled into an unhappy state by inertia.

  4. trumwill says:


    Cohabitation is definitely a form of commitment. Any time a person puts up barriers to exit they are in essence committing. But it’s simply not marriage. I’m tempted to say that the eighteen wedding showers demonstrates that women know it, but I think that there are other factors contributing to that phenomenon. I would say that any woman that harbors fantasies of lavish weddings should particularly stay away from premarital cohabitation. Oddly, that isn’t really my experience. Instead, I think they are more likely to view it as “better than nothing”.

    I think that men are attracted to premarital cohabitation for a couple reasons. First, sexual access is easier. It can also be a good deal for men if the women are “auditioning” for marriage as they will often try to prove how great marriage would be by doing more of the grunt housework. Lastly, though, I think that it’s as much as anything a way for men (and women) to actually avoid more substantial commitment if others (the partner, parents, friends) are pressuring them to do so. If a woman wants to marry a guy and a guy doesn’t want to, cohabitation is a good “compromise” that allows the woman to get some commitment and allows the guy to avoid the commitment that he wants to avoid (and that she often wants).

  5. trumwill says:

    A couple other thoughts:

    I realize that the general nature of this post is extremely stereotypical. The woman that wants to get married and the reticent guy. No doubt a lot of women (if I had any female readers except Sheila and Clancy) could step forward and say “that’s not what it was for me at all” with some accusations about stereotyping thrown in. However, this is one of those stereotypes that my experience tends to bear out as I look at the people around me. This is in contrast to, say, the stereotypical relationship where the woman wants to reproduce and the guy doesn’t. I actually see that more often go the other way. That may change as more women around me enter their mid-thirties, though, and confront the reality that if they’re going to reconsider, they need to do so soon.

    Second, this is actually tangentially an argument against prolonged courtships as much as cohabitation. A lot of the arguments made against premarital cohabitation could also be made against prolonged courtships. However, without premarital cohabitation, I think that prolonged courtship is unlikely (both sides are likely to start getting antsy) except in cases, as with Julie and me and Oliver and his first wife, where the couple doesn’t have the independence for marriage to be a serious consideration.

  6. thebastidge says:

    “I respect that position, asinine though it may be,”

    Clearly, lol. I’m not sure those words mean what you think they mean.

    Many cultures include a cohabitation period before final comittment. In America, socio-economic class used to play a large part, now it’s sort of migrated across the “boundaries”. The relaxation of Protestant Puritanism is probably a large part of this: I believe Catholicism has always been a bit more lax on the subject, as long as you’re married before the baby is born. You can always get forgiveness or purchase an indulgement, after all.

    Personally, I’m in favour of cohabitation, but I’ve also always been fairly casual about sexual encounters. Lately, I find myself (no doubt due to age) considerably less inclined towards casual relationships of indefinite longevity while still being open to casual sex as long as it doesn’t impede my goal of finding a long term relationship to have kids. (I realize this may be more contradictory than I’m painting it here, and so I am certainly more circumspect about it than in the past.)

    I just had this talk with my latest dating partner last night. She cleary laid out why she didn’t think we would work out, which was kind of a relief because I was struggling to find a sensitive way to say the same thing. At 45, she’s no longer in the market for kids (once-married divorcee of 5 years duration, ended it a year ago) and it’s clearly something I need to do for myself. At 38 and male, it’s far more practical for me to start a family than for her.

  7. PeterW says:


    Do you think that all things being equal, cohabitation before marriage (if it does lead to marriage) will increase or decrease the probability of later divorce? That is, if cohabitation allows a more rigorous screen (as TransplantedLawyer thinks), then given certain probabilities, it might be worth it to avoid Type I errors in marriage, even at the risk of increased pain in the event it doesn’t work out.

  8. ? says:

    Clancy’s parents always respected her decision, though her sisters and cousins were somewhat derisive on the subject.

    Looking back on it, I am amazed by the extent to which (providentially, in my view) the meaningful influences on my character when I was growing up stayed on-message about sex to the point where the message could “take.” Now that I think about it, damn near all of my extended family were breaking the rules, and yet they had sufficient shame, decency, and respect for my mother to conceal this from me during the period in which their behavior might have shaped my views on the subject.

    Contrast with this poor child.

  9. trumwill says:


    I would say that if you married someone that was willing to premaritally cohabitate, you’re probably at a slightly higher risk than you would be if you married someone that did not cohabitate. That having to do with their attitudes and demographics and the corrollations those bear out. However, if you take that out of the equation under the notion that “all things being equal” accounts for their attitudes, it’s probably a push.

    Where I am skeptical of the whole filtering business is that I don’t know that living together provides insights that you can’t get elsewhere. I think that after a year or two of dating with open communication and the powers of observation and with eyes on marriage, you know what you need to know. If after two years of dating you’re not sure, you need to be asking yourself why.

    Bear in mind that I declared an intent to marry my wife when I knew her all of two weeks and am one of three brothers with cautious, four year relationships that did not turn out well (one in divorce, two in collapse after mulling over the marriage question). So I may be biased against caution.

  10. trumwill says:


    It’s hard to read that story and not think of Gannon. Sans the whole “he was married” bit.

  11. Gannon says:

    No Trumwill, you haven’t understood me. I think teen girls should marry older men, idealy 7-12 years older, at THE MOST 15. So for a 16 year old girl the man really shouldn’t be older than 30. Second, the man should have the genuine intention to marry the girl and the girl should under no circumstance surrender her virginity before the wedding night.

  12. trumwill says:

    Gannon, the part that reminds me of you was Simon’s efforts to use his age as leverage to compensate for his shortcomings. Can’t speak for Argentina, but in the US most guys in their twenties that sniff around teenagers are more like Simon and less like your ideal.

  13. Sheila Tone says:

    I’m with TL. Cohabitation is *practical.* Housing is expensive. If you’re going to be having sex anyway, why not? It seems a little coy and frankly phony, no offense, to be having sex and spending most of your time together, but to make a big deal about maintaining separate households.

    I lived with Mr. Tone before we got married. We never did any kind of philosophical analysis about it. It just made sense at the time for both of us. I was trying to get my career off the ground, and he was stuck in the boondocks alone. At the time, I felt my life was too unstable to commit to anything permanent. Some older people, like my lech boss at the time, assumed wrongly that I was languishing on the vine while I waited for him to pop the question.

    I know a number of committed, educated, professional couples who lived together before marriage and are still married. In some cases, they moved in when they got engaged. Sometimes there were issues with one person’s lease ending, and/or someone’s roommate wanting to find someone who was a better long-term roommate prospect. It’s often difficult to time moving and housing perfectly with the day after one’s wedding.

    A lot of the negative comments in this thread make me think of the “Laverne and Shirley” episode where LaVerne considers moving in with a guy (and decides against it after Shirley’s admonishment, of course). Thirty years ago, living together was indeed a “marriage lite,” something that some marriage-minded women had to settle for. The relationship tended to break down on traditional gender lines except for the commitment. There are still a lot of people — especially poorer ones, and older ones — who have those types of cohabitations. I think that’s what Will’s averse to.

  14. Will Truman says:

    Housing is expensive.

    That’s a good point, actually. I’m coming at this from the perspective of coming from a part of the country where housing isn’t that expensive. If I had been raised on the coast, my perspective may differ somewhat. This can be sidestepped somewhat by the defrayed costs of roommates, though of course for that to work you have to have eligible roommates. I suppose I was relatively fortunate in this regard.

    If you’re going to be having sex anyway, why not? It seems a little coy and frankly phony, no offense, to be having sex and spending most of your time together, but to make a big deal about maintaining separate households.

    I would agree more with this if they were making a moral argument. Like living together is *immoral* rather than say risky or problematic.

    I know a number of committed, educated, professional couples who lived together before marriage and are still married.

    I do, too. My position is not that it’s ruinous, but that it’s risky. It can result in a lot of wasted time and it can substantially aggravate situations that even under the best of circumstances would be painful.

    In some cases, they moved in when they got engaged. Sometimes there were issues with one person’s lease ending, and/or someone’s roommate wanting to find someone who was a better long-term roommate prospect.

    Even Mom more-or-less gives a pass on engaged couples. As do I. If you’re already engaged the risk is pretty minimal. I still think that it’s ideal not to move in until after you’re married, but that’s more of a preference than anything else. Of course, I’m talking about real engagements here. I don’t considered open-ended engagements to be real ones and so the same concerns would apply as with non-engaged couples. It’s one thing if you haven’t picked out a specific date yet, but another if you’re in no hurry to pick out a date.

    I think that’s what Will’s averse to.

    That’s what I’m most averse to, for sure. Though even movements out of practicality are unsettling to me, somewhat. Not infrequently move-ins that make sense at first (the couple clearly isn’t ready for marriage but do have some pretty strong finanancial incentives to move in together) become problematic when one member of the partnership starts wanting marriage. In the cases of Clint and Margaret and Tony and Julie that was the case. Neither Margaret or Julie genuinely wanted marriage when they moved in. But when they did want marriage, their living arrangements made things a lot more difficult than they otherwise would have been.

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