John Shore put up a post on Monday called "How bad is living together before marriage?" in which he responded to someone whose parents were freaking out about his wanting to live with his girlfriend. As usual, I think John is spot-on, in that he gets right to what the parents' real concerns are: premarital sex and whether the son is still a Christian.
I've written before about premarital sex in an attempt to introduce some reality into what is often an extreme black-and-white discussion. I'm tired of people saying, "Everyone MUST save sex until marriage or your marriage will be terrible," but I'm equally tired of people saying, "You MUST have sex before marriage or you risk having terrible sex for the rest of your life."
As John points out, most of the concerns around people living together before marriage are essentially concerns about premarital sex, although there is also some concern that living together before marriage leads to higher divorce rates. (This, of course, assumes that a couple will eventually get married, while more and more couples are choosing to never get married.)
However, there are people on the flip side, who say everyone should live together before marriage, with comments on the post like "I think it's absolutely ridiculous to NOT live together before getting married" and "It should be mandatory." They, however, seem to be concerned about far more than sex:
"I believe living together can indeed be a great way to learn if you and your partner are good for the long haul. Most simply put, it's one thing to seriously date a person. It's another thing entirely to share a life and a bathroom with them, 24/7."
"While i have zero desire to get married myself, i am a HUGE proponent of test driving the car before you buy it....Some people absolutely cannot co-habitate in harmony. Sure they may love each other but if one person has (for example) OCD and the other person doesn't work with them and accept it and chooses instead to roll their eyes, etc., they're going to have a whole heck of a lot of problems."
"I think it's good to live together before getting married. You start to become a bit closer to the person if you really love them, and plus you are thinking about marrying them, so….You obviously have to get used to living together if you're going to put up with all of their crap."
"You should know what it is like to live together, day in and day out, with that person. You need to know whether you can share all of the same personal space. How much their nasty habits oog you out. Whether you can divide chores fairly. You will never, ever know this unless you live with this person."
These kinds of arguments, though, have the same fallacy that the "what if the sex is bad?" argument does. I'll call it the "trial run" fallacy.
The trial run fallacy seems to operate on the assumption that people's behavior is fixed, unchanging. You have to find out whether someone IS messy or bad at sex or whatever before getting married or else doom yourself to a life of misery. I previously challenged the idea that everyone has a fixed sexual ability.
But if questioned, I don't think the above commenters would say they believe that people are actually unable to change their habits or compromise (except in certain cases, which I'll get to in a minute). So it's either that they think you shouldn't have to change or compromise when living together, or that you won't know your partner's willingness to change unless you live together.
I have a serious issue with these arguments.
To the first: It's true that you should be able to "be yourself" in a relationship. I don't think it's healthy to have what I call a "bubble relationship" in which you try to put up a façade of what you think your significant other wants you to be. But I also think it's possible to take this notion too far. There's a difference between who you are at your core and how you choose to behave. If you are in a relationship with the attitude that your significant other just needs to put up with whatever you do and cater to whatever you want, then it doesn't matter who you're with -- it's probably not going to last long.
Mike and I have been together nearly eight years, three of which we've been married and sharing an apartment. Both of us have had to change certain ingrained habits in order to live harmoniously together, and while that sometimes takes time, by and large it hasn't been an issue because we both have the understanding that living together means we need to 1) communicate our needs, 2) change our habits sometimes, and 3) let go of some things that bug us. Which is also how we approach most other aspects of our relationship, such as how we talk to each other.
Your marriage is not somehow doomed to fail because you didn't do a trial run living with someone and rubber-stamp them as having no annoying habits and not being annoyed by any of your habits. If you both approach living together -- whether after marriage or before -- with a spirit of service and flexibility, then when you discover that something you or your partner does irritates the other, it doesn't have to mean the end of the relationship, but rather the beginning of trying to work it out.
To the second: With all that I just said about the need for flexibility and an attitude of service, that brings us back to this notion that "there's no way to know if your partner has horrible habits that they're unwilling to change without living together!"
I have to disagree.
Even those who don't live together are typically going to spend some time in their significant other's apartment or house. Mike and I were both in college in the years leading up to getting married, so when visiting each other we had the opportunity to see how the other person kept their personal space. We observed each other's working habits. We cooked meals together in each other's kitchens and discussed our approaches to doing the dishes. We also just had a lot of discussions about our personal habits and pet peeves; Mike was upfront about the fact that he's a naturally messy person, but that he makes an effort to keep shared spaces clean. We determined that I didn't mind mess, just disorganization; Mike didn't mind if I wanted to create a place for everything, but he wasn't going to do it himself.
But even without really having to deal with living habits head on yet, there were plenty of opportunities to see whether Mike was the kind of partner who was willing to respect my concerns and make an effort to change those things that really bothered me. Both of us matured so much and worked through so many different issues during the course of our relationship in college that it would have been completely bizarre if after five years Mike had suddenly become inflexible and unwilling to listen to concerns that I had when we got married and started living together.
Well, what about those things that people are unable to change through simply making an effort on their own? Things like mental illness and addiction typically need professional help and sometimes may only be managed, not truly changed.
Again, I don't think that living together is somehow the only way to uncover these things "before it's too late." In a healthy, open relationship, these things will be disclosed and discussed well in advance of marriage anyway. If someone has a diagnosed illness and never discloses that to their significant other, or hides their addiction, then living together may make it more likely that the problem will be discovered, but not necessarily -- and I'd say it's the secrecy, far more than the not-living-together-soon-enough, that is the biggest threat to a healthy relationship here.
So I reject the notion that having a successful relationship is 100% a matter of "finding the right person for you," and that living together is the only way to discover whether you've found that right person. You will never find a partner who is 100%, completely perfectly compatible with you in every way at the moment you meet. And it's entirely possible for a couple to have a successful marriage without living together first if they have open, honest communication and a flexible, service-minded approach to making their relationship work.
Just so it's completely clear, this is not an argument against living together before marriage. It's a rebuttal to those who think living together before marriage is mandatory for a healthy, lifelong marital relationship.
Agree? Disagree? What, if anything, does living together teach you about a person that nothing else can, and is it necessary to learn those lessons before making a lifelong commitment? Do you see the trial run fallacy show up in other arguments?