Living together before marriage has become more acceptable and prevalent in North American society. Partners are often motivated to live together by love, sex, finances, testing the longevity of the relationship, or some combination. While there can be an indescribable feeling of joy, excitement, and exhilaration, the experience of sharing a life with someone else can also be quite demanding and challenging. Late adolescence and young adulthood (i.e., ages 18-25) is a stage of life where many individuals transition a serious dating relationship into living together. This period of life is also personally challenging for each partner as he or she struggles to figure themselves out and to form their own identity (e.g., education, career, family, community). This tug o’ war between individual identity development and forming a shared life with someone else is what makes living together during young adulthood hazardous.
Benefits of Living Together
There are many benefits to living together. Research suggests that a positive and meaningful living together relationship results in partners being generally happier and healthier than their single friends. There are also some studies that suggest men live longer when in a committed, living together relationship (sorry ladies).
There are many other practical benefits of living together as well. Your best friend becomes more accessible. You have someone to share your ups and downs in life with. You can create shared goals and experiences. You have a built-in cheerleader and a shoulder to cry on. Your costs of living are reduced. You learn more intimate details about your partner that you would not have otherwise. You learn how to resolve conflict. You share household chores. You get to spend more time with your partner than you did before. Your partner may be able to help you find yourself and develop your identity. Back rubs. Cuddles. Sex.
Living Together Stressors
Research suggests that unmarried couples who live together break up more often than married couples. While many people will argue that the only difference between living together before and after marriage is a party and a signed pieced a paper, there is something about the ceremony of the marriage process that increases the commitment level of the partners. Research also suggests some distinct differences between unmarried couples living together and married couples. Unmarried couples tend to have lower levels of personal happiness and higher rates of depression than married couples. Unmarried partners value independence more than married partners. Unmarried partners are less likely to be financially supportive of one another. Unmarried partners also tend to have more negative attitudes about marriage.
Living together arrangements are challenging at times for most people as the couple attempts to resolve conflict, unrealistic expectations, and differences over sex, finances, and household responsibilities. Additionally, late adolescent and young adult partners are likely to experience more stress in their living together relationship due to the formative features of identity development and the lack of experience in these types of relationships. During this period of life, each partner’s values, beliefs, and directions in life tend to ebb and flow as he or she figures out what is meaningful or purposeful to them. With two individuals experiencing these ebbs and flows at the same time there is an increased likelihood of stress. A lack of experience in resolving these forms of stress or conflict, can leave the partners feeling quite overwhelmed.
Tips to be successful
Despite the challenges, it is possible to have a very positive relationship. Partners first need to be aware of three factors that can influence the relationship significantly. First, partners may view living together differently. For example, women tend to see unmarried living together as a step toward a long-term commitment whereas men tend to see it as a way to decide if they are going to make the long-term commitment. Second, some couples stay together even when things are clearly not working in the relationship. Some people stay in relationships because the transition back to single life is too difficult. Some stay because they are worried that they will cause their partner to suffer. Third, extended family can have a significant influence on the success of a couple’s living together relationship. All couples have difficult times. When extended family steps in to help the couple be successful, the relationship becomes stronger. If extended family members were opposed to the living arrangement or the relationship, they can take advantage of a couple’s difficult time to fracture the relationship further.
The following are some ways to foster a healthy relationship:
- Love each other. Enjoy the passion of the relationship. Commit wholeheartedly to the relationship. Make time for physical (e.g., affection and sex), psychological (e.g., sharing feelings and thoughts), and social intimacy (e.g., same friends or activities).
- Determine what living together means. Express what living together means to you. Listen to what your partner feels living together means to them.
- Deal with personal issues. Everyone has baggage (e.g., family, past relationships). Make sure you have dealt with these or that you can manage them.
- Plan to assess the relationship. Don’t overanalyze the relationship but do make a plan (e.g., once a year) to discuss how things are going.
- Agree on the role of extended family. Determine the weight you will put on inputs from extended family. Identify which extended family members are your biggest supporters.
- Be honest. Lies lead to more lies. It can be difficult to express how you truly feel but not as difficult as it will be to maintain the lies or recover when a lie is found out.
- Be kind and respectful. Remember that your partner is your best friend. Don’t demean your partner. Understand your partner’s wishes and feelings. Compromise.
- Communicate. If it is not being talked about then your partner does not know. Your partner cannot read minds. Express and listen.
- Stay close. Be caring and loyal. Trust your partner and demonstrate that your partner can trust you. Share your feelings. Be supportive.
- Share goals and beliefs. Explore your beliefs and values together. Recognize and respect the differences that might exist.
- Share experiences. Find and share common interests and friends. Talk about your experiences. Respect each other’s individual interests.
- Show affection. Show you partner you love them. Show affection in different ways.
- Leverage supportive family members. Seek these family members out for advice, guidance, support, and shared experiences.
Dr. Stephen Rochefort is a registered psychologist in the province of Alberta. For more information on this or any other forensic or clinical psychology topic, contact Dr. Stephen by email (email@example.com) or phone (604.554.0469).