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Cohabitation-Divorce Link? I Don't Think So

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Clinical psychologist Meg Jay penned an editorial published in Saturday's New York Times entitled "The Downside of Cohabitation Before Marriage," in which she writes that cohabiting largely leads to future unhappiness, including divorce.

"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," Jay writes. "These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect."

Jay supports her point with anecdotes from her therapy practice. One of her clients, "Jennifer," is going through a divorce less than a year after she tied the knot, despite living with her boyfriend for four years before they got married. Jennifer told Jay that moving in with her boyfriend "just happened" without any real conversation, and admitted that "she never really felt that her boyfriend was committed to her."

Aside from the fact that the "cohabitation effect" Jay sites has been debunked by recent research (which Slate's Hanna Rosine pointed out), I take issue more with her use of anecdotal evidence. Because she's a psychologist, Jay's client's are likely coming to her because they already have a problem -- therefore skewing the argument that Jay lays out against cohabitation in her op ed.

I'm no doctor, but I would wager that Jennifer may have gotten divorced whether or not she lived with her boyfriend first. Why? Because her relationship didn't have what is arguably the most essential component of a successful marriage: effective communication. I would argue that when cohabitation is entered into by two people who talk frankly about what the decision will mean for their relationship, there is less of a chance that those people will feel like they made a mistake -- as Jennifer did.

Like Jay, I come to the cohabitation conversation with my own experience. As one-half of a happily cohabiting couple (who's surrounded by a dozen couples who live together or did so before they got married), I see cohabiting not as a convenience or something that just "happens," but as a valuable step toward marriage.

My boyfriend and I moved in together after a year and a half of dating and a serious conversation about our shared goal to marry each other one day. We have now been living together for almost as long.

We decided to progress our relationship in stages, and living together first without being engaged was part of that. We combined our furniture (I sold the bed I'd slept in for over 10 years), and we work together to pay our bills (I buy groceries, he pays when we go out). While I would be beyond devastated if our relationship ended, I know that it is far easier for us to break-up than it is to call off an engagement or go through a divorce. Not to mention that moving in together without the stress of planning a wedding, or the post-nuptial post-partum, allows us to focus solely on our day-to-day relationship dynamics. For us, cohabitation is both a step and a test: a step toward a more solidified commitment, but also a test to see if our relationship can indeed continue to progress in a way that makes us both happy.

Some may scoff at cohabitation by calling it "playing house," demoting it from the important role it serves relationships like mine. For my boyfriend and I, there's an altar in the distance, but we're not rushing toward it. Our relationship is a romance, yes, but it's also a partnership that we're continuing to build on commitment and trust. Isn't that something worth cultivating and protecting by taking it step-by-step?

I don't see any harm pausing in the "living together" phase before taking what I hope will be a permanent leap into marriage, especially when so many young people (myself included) worry we'll become another divorce statistic. According to a research by demographers at Cornell and the University of Central Oklahoma, two-thirds of cohabiting couples between ages 18 and 36 are hesitant to get married because they fear divorce, even if they don't have any personal experience with it.

The bottom line is this: While Jay seems to want to save twentysomethings like me from making life-ruining relationship mistakes, pointing the finger at cohabitation won't save us. Nothing will. It's not whether or not (or for how long) you live with someone that determines divorce; it's whether or not you're ultimately right for each other, which is something that only time (and your gut) will tell.

I would love an easy solution to help prevent future divorce, but forgoing cohabitation isn't it. Every couple needs to do what works for them, and fits with their values and goals. The fact is, you can do everything "right" and your relationship still might fail (as a recent Atlantic article warned, even happily married couples aren't immune to divorce). Every step we take in solidifying our relationships -- whether it's shopping for a promise ring, deciding to move in together or getting married -- is just another leap of faith.