“Professing love is easy. Practicing love takes courage.”

    – Brené Brown 

What about cohabitation?” a radio show host asked me recently, “Can’t a couple simply live together in a marriage-like arrangement and reap the benefits of marriage without its complications?”

Can this really happen? Here’s how some folks explain why they chose cohabiting with no plan to marry.

  • Harold, 58 and divorced: “I don’t want the government involved in my relationship.”
  • Laura, 30, who lives with her boyfriend and their two-year-old son: “Everyone I know who got married is divorced. We’ll stay together as long as it’s good.”
  • Sally, a statuesque brunette beauty in her 40’s, and twice divorced from men who were poor choices: “All my friends are divorced and cynical about marriage.”

Harold, Laura, and Sally do not want marriage because they dread a divorce, or another one.

Fears Abound 

Who can blame them for being afraid? Depending on whose statistics you believe, somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of fist marriages fail. Dissolution rates for second and third marriages, respectively, are even higher.

My parents divorced when I was thirteen. Marriage felt risky to me. Cohabitation seemed even more hazardous. What if I’d change my life radically to live with someone, no strings attached, bonded intensely with him, and he bolted? He could opt out whenever and break my heart.

Commitment is Higher in Marriage

In marriage, both partners are likely to be more committed. I think “marriage-like” is an oxymoron. Marriage has long been defined as a legal union meant to last for life. Living together is not like being married because either partner can easily leave. The no-strings factor vastly changes the dynamics of the relationship.

I value the legal part of marriage. It means we will do everything possible to keep the relationship good. I want a lifelong union, not an easy escape option. I like the potential expenses and complications of splitting up. They cause us both to invest energy, in an ongoing way, into living together happily, regardless of the ups and downs that any intimate relationship experiences.

As a colleague puts it, “Marriage is not a consumer product that you give a try to see how it suits you. Marriage is a leaving of all other relationships to give yourself completely to your beloved. Cohabitation says, “I’m not sure about you. Can I give you a test-drive to see what I think? Melts your hearts doesn’t it, ladies? Marriage says, ‘I want all of you and I want to give all of myself to you!’ This is why cohabitation and marriage are such very different kinds of relationships.”

Successful Marriages

I believe most divorces can be prevented — if people choose wisely. Chemistry counts. But communication, respect, shared values, and compatibility are also important for a fulfilling lifelong relationship.

Marriage has been around for thousands of years. Until very recently almost all married couples stayed together for life. I think today’s high divorce rate is an anomaly, a blip in history, caused by huge societal changes that have created new expectations for spouses, which many people either don’t realize they possess or haven’t learned how to satisfy.

FINAL COVER Marriage Meetings...book

I think marriage is here to stay. Once people learn how to create successful marriages, divorce will again be a rare exception to the rule that marriage is permanent.

If your relationship is basically healthy, you can easily keep it on track by holding a short, gentle, weekly conversation. Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, February 2014), explains step-by-step how to do this; it gives guidelines, a simple agenda, and communication techniques.

“Marriage meetings” increase romance, intimacy, teamwork, and help resolve issues more smoothly. My husband David and I have been holding them for over 27 years. I give the meetings major credit for our lasting happiness together.

The Marriage Meeting; Step by Step

Appreciation, first on the meeting’s agenda, sets a feel-good, positive tone, although just knowing that you’re taking time to meet affirms that you both value your relationship. During this part of the meeting, each partner takes an uninterrupted turn to tell the other things they appreciated about him or her during the past week. The next topics are Chores, Planning for Good Times, and Problems and Challenges. Marriage meetings prevent misunderstandings or help resolve them promptly, so grudges don’t build up.

Step by step instructions for holding marriage meetings are provided in my book, Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted. It includes guidelines to prepare for meetings and positive communication skills to use during them, and which can enhance virtually any relationship.

By holding marriage meetings, you can transform your relationship into one that fulfills you in all the important ways — emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, like marriage is meant to do, for life.

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, is a psychotherapist, speaker, and executive coach.
  1. All this is obvious to me! This is why you should marry at 18. Then you should study and practice the art of staying and being married with books, and marriage workshops, etc!

  2. Why does JDate’s Tamar Caspi assume the opposite of this? Statistics prove that marriage is better than “living together”. Why does’t anyone else have something to say?

  3. The whole argument rests on the premise that both parties are ready, willing, and able to talk things out — to communicate with at least some depth.

    What happens if you are a Jewish woman with an advanced education (Master’s degree), and come from a family of MSW social workers who always approached life including problems with talking things through, but then you marry someone from the opposite background, say a person from an immigrant Latino family of many divorces, (4 children, 3 different fathers), and a lot of poverty. Let’s say you married him because he made you laugh — only later after you married him did you realize that you were laughing at him, not with him, and he resented it which is understandable and could never understand why you were laughing. And let’s say he doesn’t know how to discuss things, and doesn’t want to, and as I said, certainly didn’t come from a family that ever did discuss things, but rather drank and hit each other. How do you make this marriage work? Answer: I think it’s impossible. It was in my case. And by the way, I’m a liberal democrat and a secular Jew; he’s an extremely right-wing Republican whose family was 1/2 7th day adventist and 1/2 pentacostal. How could this marriage ever work?

  4. Pricilla, I am so sorry about what you had to endure. Sounds like you came from a wonderful, supportive family and married someone who came from the opposite kind. Apparently you learned the hard way that a good potential husband is not just someone who makes you laugh. A lesson for all is to test a relationship long enough before committing to marriage to learn how you’re likely to get along as husband and wife. Find out what you have in common, which should include a willingness to talk things out , similar values, interests, lifestyle preferences, good character traits, and, of course, Thank you for commenting . I’m currently writing a book for marriage minded single women to help them achieve their goal of choosing well and creating a fulfilling lasting marriage. I plan to announce its publication date in a future edition of my free monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to at http://www.marriagemeetings.com

  5. Though the book in concept sounds like a useful one, I am a bit disappointed by what is missing from this short intro article.

    What’s missing is that moving in together is JUST LIKE being married, in the emotional sense, even if not the legal sense. And mostt people are sorely unprepared for how emotionally intense and compromising living together actually is. I agree that most people want a “test drive” by living together but when I ask them what they would find out living together about their mate’s character that they wouldn’t find out by simply dating them for an extended period, they say things that in no way should break apart a marriage. I think young people (esp children of divorced parents) are so fearful of divorce they irrationally want guarantees living together cannot give, and do not want to do the compromises marriage requires.

    Lastly, I think the author’s colleague’s statement is not accurate. Marriage should NOT be about leaving of all other relationships to give yourself completely to your beloved. That is a recipe for loneliness and disconnection with what makes you you. I do agree cohabitation says “test drive” but it isn’t really a test drive. EMOTIONALLY, LIVING TOGETHER IS MARRIAGE. When it ends it FEELS like divorce. People have every right to want to test drive. That’s what dating is for. Leave marriage for when you’re 90% sure you can work through the hard parts.

    (And by hard parts I do not mean how he/she rolls up the toothpaste tube)

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