Expert Q&A: Managing Commitment
I am always amazed at how the trends and issues in my private practice reflect the demographic changes in society. And one of those trends is the increase in the number of romantic partners who choose living together instead of marrying.
The recent findings from the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey for 2009 indicate that the proportion of married adults has slid to a record low of 52 percent. Divorce and loss of a spouse account for some of the change, but the biggest number of unmarried adults is actually people between the ages of 25-34 who have never been married.
Instead of saying, "I do," these young adults are saying, "I'm not ready, I'm not sure---and I don't want to make a mistake." The two main reasons for this historical rise in the commitment-shy are a tendency to delay marriage and a preference for living together. No wonder so many of my never-married young adult clients are moving in together.
There is even a slight increase in the number of divorced parents-and even some divorced or widowed grandparents-of these young adults who are also choosing to live together and forego marriage. In my practice, some of these older couples say that their reluctance to marry are due to financial needs such as maintain the same level of alimony or child support or preserving social security.
Yet, others simply don't see a need to "tie the knot." The words of one of my clients, a woman in her early fifties, reflect the whole demographic shift: "The culture now says it's okay, my pocketbook says hold onto to your own, and my heart and mind say hold off."
So, back by popular demand, is an extended guide of things to consider before moving in together.
1. You are still a couple. You are not playing house. Moving in together-and out, if it doesn't work-still ups the ante on intimacy and commitment. Breaking up is never easy. Co-mingling your emotional and sexual closeness with physical space is a big step. Don't fool yourself into thinking it isn't. Just as in marriages, devise an exit strategy ahead of time in case one of you wants out.
2. It's okay to have some uncertainty about your future as a couple. Not too long ago, engagement was the socially accepted way of testing the relationship. Engagement allowed a way out of a bad choice, but breaking up still took a toll on a person's sense of self-worth and trust in one's judgment. Now, living together has taken the place of the engagement and replaced it with co-habitation. Use this time to see you partner close up.
3. However, uncertainty should not make allowances for abuse. The tabloids are filled with stories about the latest star with the blackened eye. Some of us hear these stories and wonder why she put up with his lying, punching and fooling around. But, in truth, it's very easy to accommodate to abusive behavior. For example, a woman becomes dependent on the man for financial support, excitement, entrée into a certain lifestyle and a main source of esteem-building. Soon, these benefits seem to outweigh being alone again in a less attractive living situation. Even the brightest and most accomplished women can fall into this trap. Know the signs of verbal, physical and psychological abuse. Protect yourself and leave if necessary.
4. Listen to your inner voice. Don't be seduced into moving in with someone because it seems like the next step in your relationship. If you feel half-hearted about it, feel that you didn't really have a voice in the decision or got swept away by great sex, gifts or words, then don't move in. It's easier to move in later than it is to break up.
5. Know why you are moving together. Is this a trial engagement? Are you moving in for financial convenience? Do you have the same goal, including "let's just see what it happens--which is a legitimate reason. Talk about why you are taking this step in your life. Moving in simply because you spend so much time at each other's place is not a good reason. Some couples set a date as to when they will reassess their relationship. Others just let things unfold. One approach is not intrinsically better than another, but you should at least talk about your plans and views.
6. Live like a "real couple." Make decisions that include yours, his/hers and your shared bank accounts and expenses. Yet, when one person moves into another's place and space, it's easy to fall into the logic of "it was her or his place first." Talk out ways to make living together mimic marriage as much as possible. Perhaps you will have joint banking accounts or you will divide up the expenses based on each of your incomes. Decide who "owns" what if you buy furniture.
Married couples assume they will be together, so there are more things that fall into the category of "ours." Find ways to create your version of "ours." If you don't, you won't get a true sense of what it is like to be a partnership. Love problems arise as the commitment and importance of the person rises. If you continue to live with too much "this is your bookshelf, this is mine," you may rob yourself of a true picture of your life with this person.
7. Don't assume that living together is a way to "fix" your partner. A healthy bond is one where you are a support system to your partner-not a built-in mental health clinic. If your partner has serious problems such as anger, depression or substance abuse, it's very seductive to think that your ability to help and understand him or her makes you feel special and loved. Don't fall for that trap. If you do, soon you will disappear into the relationship and gasp for your own space.
8. Don't cave in to decisions just because your partner makes more money than you. In the traditional, patriarchal marriages of the 1950's and 1960's, it was assumed that he who makes the money makes the major decisions. Don't let this believe taint your actions. Speak up and don't go along to get along.
9. Announce yourself as a couple. Tell your family and friends-even if they don't approve. Hopefully, you have made this decision for yourself. Be proud of it. Usually, there is at least one person in a family who rallies to your side. And if things don't go well, you'll have this person as a sounding board.
10. If you sense irreparable problems, leave. Don't stay out of fear of loneliness or the embarrassment of it not working. You don't owe your love life to others. If you were smart enough to discuss an exit strategy with your partner in advance, then leaving will be less intense. Before you start your next relationship, make sure you understand what went wrong.
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