Interview with Relationship and Cohabitation Expert Dr. John Curtis – Benefits of Living Together Before Marriage

This interview is one in a series of expert interviews on the blog. We add new interviews on a regular basis. Please see our complete list of insightful interviews.

1. You specialize in helping “Happily Un-Married Couples!” What are the benefits of living together before marriage (or, without planning to marry at all)?

Benefits of Living Together Before OR Instead of Marriage!

While marriage is touted as THE only way to truly have a successful, committed relationship, there are many distinct advantages to cohabitation that are often overlooked, a few of which are as follows:

Time-bound – One big advantage of cohabitation is that it is not until death do you part. Instead, it’s more likely bound by the one-year lease you have on your apartment or some other form of limitation set up in your calendar. It can be beneficial to talk upfront about the relationship’s “life-span!” You should consider declaring a particular date 6 or 12 months out, and then sit down at that time to evaluate how well the relationship is going. If things have been good, perhaps you pick a longer time horizon until you do your next check up. If things have not gone well, you’ll more likely find it easier to end the relationship…. the lease is up and so is our time together.

Maintain Individuality – One assumption of marriage, like the unity candle ceremony demonstrates during the wedding, is that two people become one. However, suppose you’re not ready to take this bold step. Cohabitation allows you to work on building a relationship without necessarily giving up your individuality. A “separate but equal” approach can help reduce the anxiety that you might feel if you were to “lose yourself” in the relationship. No relationship gets better based on how much you give up to be in it. Living together is a lower risk method to see if you can live with someone, full-time and not diminish your individuality in the process.

Eliminate Illusions – It’s been said the if “love is blind” then “marriage is an institution for the blind!” It’s normal that in the early stages of a dating relationship, each partner is trying to put their best foot forward. One of the real shocks that can occur after marriage is to discover that the person you married is not who you thought. Cohabitation affords you the time for the illusions to disappear and the real person to emerge.

When this happens in marriage and the image does not match the reality, it can send a shock wave through the marriage and creates a sense of being trapped in a deception. Instead, by living together, while you may be shocked by the reality of your partner’s hygiene habits, lack of anger management, passive-aggressive sniping, at least you’re not trapped.

Practice Equality – Successful relationships are about many things including creating a sense of equality. In days gone bye, it was not expected that the man and woman were equals. The man ruled and no one questioned it, despite what may have been disastrous consequences.

Now, however, “power with” vs. “power over” is one key to making an intimate relationship work. During the dating phase of a relationship, it’s easy to maintain a “balance of power!” He picks a restaurant, she picks a movie and next time the roles shift. Once you move in together, you have the chance to see just how equal you are with your partner. The question of who controls the TV remote, who cleans the kitchen or who does laundry is quickly answered. The outcome is an important piece of information for you to know about your partner. If you are lucky, your partner values equality and if he or she does not, at least you learned it before walking down the aisle.

While it has been said by many naysayers of cohabitation that you cannot “practice” commitment, I say bunk. Cohabitation has some real advantages over getting married, at least in the short term. The above are just a few.

2. Are there more couples that take this route now than in the past 10 or 20 years? If so, why do you think that is?

Cohabitation is skyrocketing in America for many reasons that I will explain. But, first, here are some interesting tidbits from the Journal of Population Studies about cohabiting couples:

  • D.C. has the greatest percentage of unmarried heterosexual partners living together: 13.5% of coupled households.
  • Vermont is second with 12%, followed by Maine with 11.9%.
  • Utah and Alabama have the smallest percentages: 4.4%.

Those who live together average about two years, generally leading to either marriage or a breakup. Cohabitation research found that within five years of a live-in relationship, about half of couples married, about 40% split up and the rest continued to live together. As one researcher states, “People want what marriage signifies: that sense of ‘us with a future,’ “But because of the high rates of divorce for the past few decades and many other circumstances, including decreased rates of marriage, there is really a crisis in confidence about the institution of marriage.”

Reasons cited for cohabiting

  • Living with someone before marriage as a way to avoid divorce,
  • High housing costs and tight budgets often lead young people to live together,
  • Seeing little difference between the commitment to live together and the commitment to marriage,
  • Wanting to test compatibility or establish financial security before marrying,
  • A desire to live as married when same-sex marriages are not legal,
  • Cohabitation because it is easier to establish and dissolve.

Current Trends in Cohabitation

  • In the past, cohabitating was seen as financially unstable. Yet, many of today’s cohabitating couples sometimes combine their earning-powers and purchase a house together. In the past, a cohabitating couple’s relationship may have also been said to be unsound for raising a family. Today’s cohabitating couples also have children together.
  • In the past, these couples were seen as having just a fleeting relationship. Yet, many of today’s couples see themselves as deeply involved but they also view it as less than a full commitment.
  • Explanations for the Rise in Cohabitation
  • Many cohabitating couples had parents who divorced after many years of marriage, thus, by cohabitating they feel they will avoid the mistakes of their parents.
  • Many cohabitating couples see themselves as far more independent than previous generations and they no longer depend on a committed partner for financial, physical or emotional needs, or general daily chores such as cooking and cleaning.
  • Many cohabitating young people feel they have greater choice, more time to choose a soul mate and less of a need to make a full commitment.
  • Many cohabitating couples expect to invest less and receive less from the relationship by selecting a “wait and see” attitude.
Cohabitation requires working on the relationship, just as marriage does.


3. How can live-in couples keep things interesting behind closed doors?

Keeping Your Relationship Connected in a Disconnected World! – Does love have to fade over time or is it possible to keep the romance alive while balancing all of your other life priorities. Cohabiting couples have the same constant battle as married couples when the hectic pace of simply living can pull us in many directions including disconnecting us from our partner. Work, children, church, finances and hobbies are just a few of the life’s other top priorities that may compete with your relationship. Is it possible to juggle it all successfully, should you even try and, if so, where do you start? Let me begin to answer these questions by stating the obvious, if you want everything else in life to work, make your relationship your priority.

One way to show it’s your top priority is to talk about it and, yes, men can do this as well as women. Despite the false, stale stereotypes, men can talk about commitment, we may just use different terms. For example, the best way I know for a guy to grasp what commitment means, is for you to imagine that the next car you buy is the last car you’ll ever own for the rest of your life. This is the meaning of “commitment,” at least in terms a guy understands. Men matter, too, since both partners have a role in the care and feeding of a modern, committed relationship.

Now, consider these two strategies to keep things interesting with your partner. One strategy is the big picture approach, the other is about little things to do daily. Start by building a long-range plan for your relationship. Ask your partner for time to meet when you both can be fresh and focused. Describe your vision for the future of the relationship 1, 2 even 5 years down the road and ask your partner to do the same. Be sure to really listen to what your partner tells you.

Look for common goals and put them in writing to refer to when you want to keep things interesting and avoid the feeling of disconnection. Like checking your map or GPS while driving, it’s a simple way to ensure you’re still on the right road to your destination. Think of your plan as a “work in progress” for creating the future of your relationship. Set specific targets about work, education, money, leisure, religion, sex, whatever you want to accomplish together.

Think about it, if you’re both working full-time, the odds are you’re spending a combined total of at least 80 hours a week at work. I think you’ll agree that it’s not too much to ask that you dedicate a few hours to keep your relationship interesting while at home. One way to feel a powerful connection, is to build a relationship plan, then put it in motion and feel the satisfaction of reaching major milestones together. Keeping your relationship interesting is a personal decision that you can do daily through your words and actions.

Now, for the little things to keep it interesting, start by developing the daily habit to use alternatives ways to connect. Email your partner, leave a note, text them, send flowers, leave a voice message about how much you miss your partner. Let him or her know you don’t like the distance and do something daily to close the gap.

Remember, losing interest can happen to couples who spend every minute together. Keeping things interesting with your partner is not so much about time together, it’s about what you do to feel connected when you are apart.

4. What are some primary reasons live-in relationships don’t last? How can these issues be prevented?

The Primary Reason Why Cohabitation Fails and What to Do About It! – After reading several seemingly contradictory stories about the pros and cons of cohabitation from respected national news sources, I could not help but be reminded of this infamous quote about research… “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”– Aaron Levenstein

Regardless of one’s position on living together, perhaps, before or instead of marriage, the fact is the America has become a cohabitation nation. Years of condemnation and negative research studies have had no effect on slowly the rate of cohabitation since most couples reject the guilt-laden, fear-mongering attempts to discourage their living arrangement. Like it or not, for many, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are the new family role model and cohabitation has become a viable institution for over 12 million Americans.

The primary reason why cohabitation fails is that people do not understand commitment. The goal needs to be teaching the meaning of commitment and walking down the aisle does not mean commitment. The point here is that while many promote marriage as the “gold standard” for what ails American families, keep in mind that anyone of legal age can marry. On the other hand, I think we need to be putting more of an emphasis on building committed relationships which is something that requires lots of hard work and emotional maturity.

I think we must “re-invent” and raise our expectations of cohabitation, and our attitudes toward those who decide to live together. There is a commonly held myth that marriage means you will “live happily ever-after.” However, there is no similar assumption of cohabitation other than “it won’t last” which helps create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s time to take a serious and non-judgmental look at cohabitating couples of all ages and help them strengthen and sustain their relationship whether they ever plan to marry. Let’s consider finding a new approach to this reality.

Cohabiting may or may not be a prelude to marriage.


5. What are some ways couples can communicate their cohabitation decision to unsupportive family or friends? How can couples find peace in their decision if they are not able to garner the “approval” of others?

Branding and Marketing Your Cohabitating Relationship! – The biggest benefit of branding and marketing your relationship is that it ensures that whenever you or your partner describe the relationship to others, you are both drawing from the same vision, values, and attitudes about the relationship. This strengthens the psychological bond, fortifies the emotional commitment, and adds to the level of intimacy each of you feels toward the other.

One of the biggest problems for cohabitating couples occurs when they are not unified in their relationship “brand,” so that they seem to be describing two very different relationships. A unified “brand” for your relationship is the best way to respond to family and friends who may be sitting in judgment or even condemning your “living in sin!”

Take, for example, the stereotypical situation with the parents. Do you ever go to dinner with your or your partner’s parents, and one of them takes your partner’s side on every issue and you feel constant pressure to get married? Or worse, they pick on your partner for cohabitating and never give him or her any support? Why is that? It is possibly because the parents don’t see you as a cohesive couple with a united front and are secretly or openly trying to drive you apart. In fact, these episodes with the parents may cause you to fight all the way home, becoming exactly as the relatives see you: divided against each other. Purposely marketing a unified brand of who you are as a couple will let the people you spend time with know the brand of your relationship and how you want to be viewed.

Pick out those qualities or values from your brand that you most want to put forth. No matter what your partner says to other people about you, always make sure that they know you support each other. No matter what your partner forgets to do or how frustrated you or others can get, let others know you are with your partner all the way. While venting your irritation about your partner to a close friend, it’s a good idea to add something like, “Oh well, it’s a good thing we share the same vision and values; it helps me get past the occasional little disagreements quickly.” Live the brand!

As a counterbalance to the chronically high failure rate of intimate relationships, consider becoming much more purposeful in the care and nurturing of the most important relationship in your life. Discovering or developing your authentic relationship brand and marketing it consistently can be a powerful tool to help keep you both well connected… and make the relationship world-class regardless of whether you are getting married or plan to live together forever.

This is a chance for you to feel more in charge of your relationship’s destiny. To take relationship brand marketing one step further, consider creating your own Facebook page since it is so easy to do. It’s the place where you post pictures or notices of your partnership or planned events and market your brand to the world. Write quarterly e-newsletters to all of your family and friends that reinforce the brand images of who you are as a couple. Building a world-class relationship means you need to do things differently to make your rela¬tionship successful. Developing and marketing a relation¬ship brand is certainly outside-the-box thinking! Besides, it will really surprise all those critics who are just waiting for your relationship to fall apart.

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