How could I convince my daughter that she might be about to make a terrible mistake?
By K.C. Scott
(Transcription of an article that appeared in The Reader’s Digest, February 1994, pp. 77-80.)
“Mom, Joe and I have decided to live together,” my strong-willed 23-year-old daughter announced defiantly at our dining-room table, her boyfriend at her side.
Her words made my heart pound and my stomach churn. “Have either of you even thought about the possibility you could get pregnant?”
My daughter looked sheepishly at her boyfriend, admitting they hadn’t. Then defiance swept over her face again and she replied, “Well, I don’t care what you and Dad think. You’ll just have to accept it.”
“We may have to tolerate it,” I said firmly. “But we’ll never accept it. You’re going against every value we’ve taught you.”
As she and her 24-year-old boyfriend marched out the door, I was heartbroken. It was one of the great sorrows of my life.
I couldn’t convince my daughter that, by entering a relationship of sex without marriage, she could be making the worst mistake of her life. But since then I’ve learned unsettling facts about cohabitation. My hope is that what I learned will help other young people and parents facing the same situation. (The U.S. Census Bureau says 6,085,284 unmarried, opposite-sex partners live together.) Here’s what I found:
- There’s a good chance that a couple living together will never tie the knot.
Estimates from a number of experts are that 40 to 50 percent of cohabitants never marry each other. One 1985 Columbia University study found that only 19 percent of men who lived with their girlfriends eventually walked down the aisle with them.
I also learned that in many live-in situations, the individuals may view the relationship differently, frequently the result of failing to discuss what they expect of each other. When 139 cohabitating students were asked, in a 1973 study, why they lived with somebody, most women said it was a first step toward marriage. For men, the most common motive was sex. One man, asked why he was living with his girlfriend, replied, “Sex – there when you want it, where you want it.”
Though that particular inquiry is now years old, and the fear of AIDS has changed attitudes toward sex, I found, from the people I’ve talked to, that many cohabitants still don’t talk about what they expect from living together.
- If live-in couples do marry, they run a higher risk of divorce.
Many young couples today insist that living together is a good idea, the best way to see if they are compatible, and hence the best way to prevent divorce. The truth? One study found that people who live together before marriage are about 33 percent more likely to split up than those who don’t. Another study showed that the longer they live together before marriage, the more likely they themselves thought their chance of divorce. Moreover, the study says, cohabitants have a lower reported quality of marriage and a lower commitment to it.
As Connecticut psychologist Joseph Nowinski explains, “Living together, while frequently touted as an intensely bold, romantic move, is often really a way to avoid full commitment. When two people opt for living together over marriage, one or both of them are often secretly saying, ‘ I’m worried that my love for you is too fragile to last a lifetime, so I want a quick escape hatch if the going gets rough.’ ”
- Breaking up can hurt as much as divorce.
A broken heart can’t be prevented just by refusing to sign on the dotted line. When live-in couples split, the emotional fallout is often as deeply painful as divorce. University of Southern California clinical psychologist Michael Newcomb explains: “Live-in couples usually become as emotionally attached as married couples. The problem is, it is easier for even a small problem to drive them apart because they just don’t have the glue that married couples do to hold them together – such as kids, shared finances, a legal document.”
Steve Jaccarino, a contractor in Westport, Conn., and his girlfriend broke up mainly because they disagreed over where they wanted to settle. Today, ten years later, Steve still imagines her coming back into his life. “I’m not over her,” he says.
- The woman may wind up pregnant.
This was one of my deepest concerns. Five years before my daughter announced she was going to live with her boyfriend, she had made the same mistake. At age 18, she had run away from home to live with another boy – and had gotten pregnant. When he deserted her, my daughter was so devastated and unable to cope that, for years, the burden of raising the baby had fallen on my husband’s and my shoulders.
When another young woman I know of lived with a man, she accidentally got pregnant with twins. Her live-in lover stayed with her until she was seven months along and jobless, then phoned her parents one night and announced, “Come and get your very pregnant daughter.” For the next 18 years, she raised her twin boys alone, often barely able to buy food or pay rent. Fully 44 percent of unwed mothers will live in poverty.
- Even if they do marry, they often are less happy.
Frequently, people who live together first are miserable after marriage. Common problems include: lower overall satisfaction with their partners and less ability to resolve quarrels. In one study, wives who cohabitated before the wedding complained especially about the poor quality of communication with their mates. Clearly, when it comes to marriage, practicing before hand doesn’t make perfect. One the contrary, in a study recently reported in The Journal of Marriage and the Family , the longer couples had lived together before marriage, the more unhappy they were.
- Cohabitating can lead to instability, including violence.
A 1989 study found that physical attacks are more severe among live-in couples than among those who are married. Isolation from their families may be a reason for this, the study’s authors concluded.
Another survey showed a startling 40 percent of cohabitating women were forced to endure a kind of sex they dislike. Moreover, since there is often no commitment to be sexually exclusive, those who cohabit may be put at a higher-than-average risk for sexually transmitted diseases such as genital herpes, chlamydia and AIDS.
At age 19, one Palm Springs, Calif., woman offered to let her unemployed boyfriend move in with her. She recalls: “He was living with his ex-girlfriend at the time. I figured if he moved in with me, then he would be all mine. Instead, I just wound up doing all the work and paying all the bills while he was secretly sleeping with her in my bed. It was a bad mistake.”
- They’ll have the problems of marriage without the rewards.
Cohabitating is often portrayed as trouble-free and offering all the joys of marriage with none of the responsibilities. Nonsense!
One young man I know attests to the falsity of this argument. He moved in with his fiancee three months before their wedding. Today he says, “We had all the disagreements of marriage – Who does the dishes? Who pays the bills? – without the commitment to hold us together. If we had lived together longer, we might have broken up. When you aren’t married and you fight, you don’t ever have to work it out if you don’t want to. You can just walk away.”
- Living together can kill romance.
Frequently, the woman sees living together as romantic, while the man views the arrangement as a “practical” solution, that will help them iron out differences, and strengthen their love by destroying any foolish romantic fantasies they may have about each other. In fact, live-in couples may find it harder to build lasting love precisely because they have lost their starry-eyed, romantic “illusions.”
Family therapists Judy and Jim Sellner, authors of Loving for Life , say that rich, lasting love goes through several distinct stages. The first is the “romantic” phase when love is wild and idealistic, when couples believe they have found their “one true love,” with whom they will “live happily ever after.”
It is an absolutely wonderful time, and couples should linger over it and just enjoy the candlelight dinners, the swooning, the craziness of it all. Cutting it short to rush into living together could be a major mistake. Say the Sellners: Couples who weather the tumultuous power-struggle and conflict stages, and sail smoothly onto a more peaceful period in which they come to understand and handle their differences, are those who manage to recall the “overly idealized” visions of each other they enjoyed in the first romantic stage of courtship.
The day my daughter said she was moving in with her boyfriend, I knew some of these facts and shared them with her – to no avail. But over the past few years, as I continued to learn about the data on living together, I was even more convinced it was the wrong thing to do. I became so determined to get this information out to people – and to help young women and men avoid or cope with the pregnancies that all too often result from living together – that I started a support group for unwed parents, which advocates premarital abstinence. My daughter, now 35 and much wiser, is active in the organization and tells anyone who will listen that living together is absolutely the wrong way to go.
As our children become young adults, we can no longer make decisions for them. Nor can we completely keep them from harm. But at least we can arm them with all the facts we can find. We can then only pray that they’ll make the right choices.