What is it Like to be Married
After Living Together?
Introduction: I received so many letters in response to my column, "
Living Together Before Marriage," that I have decided to continue that topic this week. To
help you understand the issues we will be discussing, read that column first.
I begin this column with a letter from someone struggling with whether or not to
marry after cohabitating, and then I follow it up with two letters from spouses who
describe their marriage after living together.
Granted, there are those who make a successful transition, but they are the
exceptions. In most cases, marriage after cohabitation is an unexpected disaster. Since the
number of couples who have chosen to live together before marriage is steadily increasing,
is there anything they can do to avoid disaster should they decide to marry? That's the
subject of this week's Q&A.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I am 31 and my boyfriend is 35. We have been living together for over 7 years. I
am ready to make a commitment to marriage but he is unsure. He proclaims his love for
me and says he wants to spend the rest of his life with me but he won't propose. Money
is not an obstacle as far as buying a ring!
We are a healthy, active and happy couple for the most part. We barely ever fight
and then it's just a discussion. Is there some sort of counseling we can go through to see
if we are ready for marriage? Are there any books you would suggest? He says he feels
uncomfortable talking to a counselor and feels he has failed at his relationship if he has to
see one. I'd appreciate your advice. I'm just looking for some stability and commitment
As you point out in your letter, you want commitment. That's what most people
who marry want. But let's make sure we understand what the commitment will be. For
most couples, it is to "love and cherish each other in plenty and in want, in joy and in
sorrow, in sickness and in health as long as you both shall live." You mention that you
have money, health and happiness at this point in time. Will you care for each other as
much if you lose all of those advantages? I'm sure you would like to have that assurance, and wouldn't want your
husband to abandon you at the first sign of trouble.
Let's imagine what will happen to you after you both make a commitment in
marriage. Will you both make a greater effort to "love and cherish" each other. If that's
what marriage would do for you, you should marry as soon as possible.
Sadly, couples that live together don't seem to care for each other after marriage
as they did before marriage. Why is that the case after they make a commitment to care for each other? The answer is found in how the commitment is usually
interpreted after marriage. It turns out that when you and your spouse make a
commitment to care for each other unconditionally, instead of being motivated to do a
better job, you tend to relax with the assumption that your spouse will care for you
regardless of what you do. You don't need to do anything to keep your spouse caring for
you since he made that commitment.
So the commitment of marriage often has the reverse effect that couples who live
together hope it will have. Instead of encouraging each spouse to make a greater effort to
care, it actually takes away the incentive to care. After all, when you live together, one of
the only things keeping you together is the other person's care for you. If that care is taken
away, you're history. But if care disappears after marriage, your commitment is expected
to keep you together.
That kind of commitment doesn't work, of course. The proof that it doesn't work
is the extremely high divorce rate among couples who live together before marriage.
I suggest that you and your boyfriend spend some time discussing what a marriage
commitment means to each of you. Is it an assurance that regardless of what you do, the other
person will continue to care for you, or is there more to it than that?
Chances are, you and your boyfriend have tried to give each other as much personal
freedom as possible while you have lived together. That's what cohabitating couples
usually do. After all, they're not married, what right do they have to try to change each
other. They make adjustments when absolutely necessary to stay together, but nothing
The rule you have been following is "do whatever makes you happy and avoid
anything that makes you unhappy." Once in a while, you will have a conflict where what
makes one of you happy makes the other unhappy, but you probably solve it by
sacrificing: I'll let you do what you want this time if you let me do what I want next time.
You may also have tried to overlook or avoid areas of conflict whenever they appear.
I believe that the rules you have used in your relationship of seven years will
become your undoing when you marry. Those rules that have protected your
independence will destroy your marriage. They don't show you how to grow together and
create compatibility, they encourage you to grow apart. When you follow them you
eventually become incompatible.
So I recommend that the "commitment" you make in marriage be a commitment to
a rule that protects your relationship from each other's self-centeredness and helps you
build compatibility. That rule will guide your decisions so that they take the feelings of
both of you into account simultaneously, instead of just one of you. Yes, you lose some of
your independence -- you will not be able to do anything you feel like doing. But you gain
a solid relationship that will help you survive "want, sorrow and sickness."
That rule that I recommend is the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything
without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). This policy, more than
any other, guarantees marital compatibility and lasting love. But couples who live together
prior to marriage tend not to follow that rule before or after marriage. To me, that is the
most important reason that their marriages do not succeed.
Couples who do not live together before marriage usually begin their marriage with
an understanding that they must both accommodate each other if the relationship is to last
a lifetime. So without ever being told what rule to follow, they tend to know enough to
follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. That's why their marriages are much more
So the solution to your problem is quite simple. While you are still unmarried, try
to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement whenever you make a decision. Assume that every
decision you make will affect the other, and ask how the other feels whenever you plan
to do something. If you can follow it while you are unmarried, there's no reason why you
would not be able to follow it after marriage. And the longer you follow it, the more
compatible and in love you will both become. You'll find that marriage will become an
easy choice for both of you, and the marriage itself will be as successful as you hoped it