Where Logic Meets Love

The Fallacy of the Relationship "Trial Run"

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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The Fallacy of the Relationship 'Trial Run' | Faith Permeating Life

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?

13 comments:

  1. I really like your posts on dating/marriage. Personally, the idea of living together without being married scares me because what if the guy rejects me after I've rearranged my whole life around being with him? I'd like to think that I can expect a higher level of commitment than "we'll try and see if it works out".

    And there has to be some sort of balance between realistically looking at whether you two are compatible (and breaking up if you're not) and requiring a high level of commitment in order for me to open up my life to a guy. (And since I have a boyfriend, I've been thinking a lot about where that balance is...)

    You definitely made some good points about how marriage requires compromise, a few "annoying habits" doesn't have to be a dealbreaker, etc. :) Keep it up- I really like your posts on dating.

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    1. Thanks! And you hit on something that came up in some of the other comments, which is that living together is a commitment in itself -- it's not as if you can just change your mind tomorrow and walk away. Once you've made that move, you're going to have an incentive to work things out anyway before going through the whole process of finding a new place to live, dividing up your stuff, packing up your stuff, determining your financial responsibility for a lease in progress, and so on. So it's much different than the kind of "trial run" of "I'll go on a date with him, and if it doesn't work out I'll just never see him again," but people talk about it as if it's the same kind of thing.

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  2. So many things that simple, honest communication throughout a relationship would help. It's like a revolutionary notion that a philosopher suggests at a scholarly conference or something, "What if ... people talked to each other?!"

    If you're even considering marrying someone, why wouldn't you have a conversation, even just out of curiosity, about who's neat and who's messy? About who does and doesn't like to cook or clean or balance the checkbook?

    More and more I think that this is the thing that is most lacking in sex education: relationship education.

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    1. Amen to this! It seems like dating advice is always in the form of rules- who should pay for dates, whether or not it's okay to kiss, etc etc etc- why don't people just TALK TO EACH OTHER and see how they each feel about it and come up with an approach that they both like? Every relationship is different- you can't set rules like that.

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    2. Seriously. Whenever people talk about having massive surprises about their significant other (e.g., they don't want children) after marriage, I'm like, "Did you not think to talk about that beforehand?"

      This is what I appreciated about the Catholic pre-cana counseling we had to do; it was essentially a list of "Hey, have you talked about these things? If not, you really should discuss them before making a lifelong commitment to this person." Obviously it's better to learn that lesson early on, as you say, but having that checkpoint before marriage is a good reminder to talk things through as much as possible.

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  3. I definitely agree with you. I had many people express surprise when I announced that I was getting married even though I wasn't living with my husband. At that point we'd already been together over 6 years, and we had a fairly good idea of our opinions on cleaning, finances etc. Now that we're married there's still been some surprises - however since we've made a commitment to stay together I think that just helps us to try harder to work everything out.

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    1. Right -- there will always be some surprises, but if you've figured out the big things ahead of time it's unlikely there will be any deal-breaker habits that you absolutely can't work through.

      That's interesting that people were surprised -- do most people in Australia live together before marriage? It's certainly common in the US, but there's still enough moral stigma around it in many circles that it would not be surprising for a couple to get married without living together first.

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  4. You can find out what kind of a roommate a person will be by rooming with them. But marriage is first of all about commitment, and the only way you can test a person's commitment is through being committed; rooming with them won't give you any information at all.

    And yes . . . most of the things that will drive you batty ought to be pretty obvious whether or not you live with someone, if you just take some time to observe, think, and talk. People have shaken their heads because DOB and I had spent less than six weeks actually physically around each other prior to marriage (very long-distance relationship), but there really weren't any big surprises once we were married--just the usual adjustments of two people trying to make a life together.

    The two biggest questions ought to be: Are both people willing to grow and change? And do they care enough about each other to keep working at it? Because if you want to know if the other person has quirks that will drive you batty, I can tell you the answer right now: Absolutely.

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    1. So much great stuff in this comment! Yes, there is a big difference between a roommate and a life partner. If you've got a roommate who never does their dishes, you probably will want to find a new roommate. But if you have a spouse who never does their dishes, you can problem solve from the position of being on the same team: What if I wash all the dishes but you handle some other chore? Could you put away the dry dishes if I wash everything? It's about far more than just sharing a space.

      And yes, it's pretty much a given that whomever you live with or marry is going to have annoying habits. You don't need to live together to know if that's true. But how you deal with it when it happens is the key -- and you can get a pretty good sense of how you'll deal with it by how you deal with every other issue in your relationship.

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  5. I agree that living together is not mandatory, it doesn't 'doom' the marriage. Sure, you'll find out some annoying habits, but everyone has those, and part of being married is loving someone for who they are, not just the good side, but also the annoying, you're driving me crazy side.
    It's not done here anymore, but fifty or so years ago it was pretty common. My aunt got married at 19 and moved in with her husband then, they're still happily married now and in their sixties.

    I do think living together is a positive thing. Not just because people don't get married at 19 anymore and tend to wait longer to get married, and well rent is better shared. It gives you a little taste of what marriage will be like, you really get to know each other, and you do get a better idea of your compatibility.
    My partner and I were long-distance, so when we moved in together we didn't know each other through and through, we just knew we loved each other. Now we know each other so much better, and I feel truly confident now that he's the right guy for me and that he's the guy I'd love to marry some day.

    Of course, with the current divorce rate, living together doesn't guarantee anything. Some people I know lived together for six years and still got divorced, others only lived together for a few months and are doing great.
    To me the current 'if it's broken, better replace it' vibe is more to blame for all the divorce rather than not living together long enough.

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    1. Lots of good thoughts here. I do think there are valid reasons people choose to live together. For example, while Mike and I didn't live together in the "traditional" sense, after I finished my master's I moved back in with my parents while I searched for a job, and Mike had been living there for the past year because he couldn't afford to get his own apartment in Chicago while in grad school. We got married later that summer, so if we hadn't had my parents to stay with I probably would have moved in wherever he was living rather than trying to find a place with a 3-month lease or moving me and all my stuff into someone else's place for a few months. So I definitely understand that it just makes the most sense for some people. What I have an issue with is the notion that living together is some sort of insurance against divorce, which as you said is not at all the case.

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  6. As a long-term unmarried cohabitor, I find it shocking that anybody thinks it's wise to learn about each other's suitability BY living together rather than discussing it BEFORE deciding to live together. Daniel and I had many discussions about issues like who is willing to do which chore, who needs a private room (he does and I don't, so we have "his den" and "our bedroom," and my desk and such are in the bedroom), at what point it's necessary to call and say you'll be home late, how to approach room decorating, etc. It was only because our answers were so compatible that we decided to live together. When we did, there were very few surprises, and the conflicts that did come up could be resolved by discussion and compromise, as you say.

    I certainly wouldn't argue that living together before marriage is REQUIRED to have a healthy, happy marriage. Looking at either the people I know or the demographic statistics, it's obvious that isn't the case. Some couples never get married, some get married immediately, and some transition from unmarried cohabitation to marriage, but that isn't a variable that determines the quality of their relationship.

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    1. I find it shocking that anybody thinks it's wise to learn about each other's suitability BY living together rather than discussing it BEFORE deciding to live together.
      Well said!! I thought you would have a great perspective on this topic.

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