How times have changed! When I was in college in the early 1970s, living with a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage was a scandalous behavior that caused many parents to disown their offending children. Nowadays, of course, premarital cohabitation is as ho-hum an event as talking on a cell phone while driving in the car.
Yet I'm not convinced that it's always the best course of action for a relationship. In fact, I see many instances where living together is clearly the wrong move for couples to make.
Now, I don't want to debate the morality of premarital cohabitation. That's a question to be addressed between the two people and perhaps their spiritual advisers. But I do advise couples to be thoughtful and aware of what they are doing in order to make sure that it's the best step for themselves and their union.
Unfortunately, too many people blindly decide to live together without understanding the possible repercussions. They load up the U-Haul and move in all of their belongings, then find themselves in a complicated and emotionally painful predicament from which it's difficult to escape.
For instance, one woman recently told me, "I met my boyfriend on a Wednesday and he moved into my apartment the following weekend." That strategy seemed like a good idea to her at the time. After all, they both felt an immediate attraction for each other. But she quickly discovered that he drank way too much and was often short on cash. She felt trapped by the arrangement but didn't know how to get him to leave.
In another situation, a couple in their early 30s had been living together for four years and the woman was now eager to get married and have children. But her boyfriend kept reporting, "I'm just not ready to settle down." This couple had never discussed their future plans before moving in together, and the girlfriend felt that she had fully committed herself without any guarantee from him.
A third couple, both divorced and sharing custody of their school-age children, wanted to live together before marriage to "see if our kids can get along." But what this well-intentioned pair failed to realize was that blending families was a long-term event that required years of incredible patience and dedication from both adults to make it succeed. Approaching it on a trial basis would only create disruption in everyone's lives without offering the proof they so diligently sought.
Are there some instances when living together is an appropriate course of action? Yes, if the following criteria are firmly in place:
1. You and your partner have an established, long-term relationship. Make sure you know this person's character, friends and spending habits. While there's no pat answer as to how much time is long enough, it's wise to date at least six months before pooling your resources.
2. You and your partner are mature enough to make the decision. Living with another person is a precursor to a long-term, committed relationship. Therefore, you must be in a stage of your life when you can assess the qualities of a future mate. Anyone younger than 18 years old is definitely not old enough to make the decision.
3. You view living together as a next logical step in your relationship. If, after an appropriate time together, your relationship is strong and secure, and you feel you'd like to learn more about the other person, then living together might be an appropriate option.
4. You agree on the future goals for the relationship. Make sure you've discussed and agreed upon such all-important issues as whether or not you want to have children or where you plan to live. Of course, every couple has its disagreements and loaded issues. But minimize the chance of problems and disappointments by hashing these out before you sign the lease.
5. You are both equally committed to the relationship. Never move in with someone who is not as committed to the relationship as you are.
Pick someone who says, in both words and deeds, "I know I want to be with you."
6. You have discussed financial responsibilities for the arrangement. Who will pay the rent in this relationship? Who will buy the food? Laying out clear guidelines will minimize the chances for problems.
7. You have established a timeline for the arrangement. Do not plan to live together indefinitely. Instead, decide on a date when you'll get married or reassess your status.
If you and your partner fit the bill, then living together may be the right course of action. If, however, one or both of you balk or fall short, then I'd view that as a sign that your union just isn't ready.
If you find yourself in a bad living together situation, then get out of it as soon as you can. Matters are unlikely to improve, no matter how much time you give them. The sooner you get out and get back on your feet, the sooner you can make a better decision for yourself.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, go to lindalewisgriffith.com.