Another day, another slew of articles about marriage. Who's doing it. How successful they are. (Turns out living together first decreases your chances! Who knew?) And how "the path" to marriage "has been obscured" by icky, newfangled, lets-hang-out dating culture.
Marriages Last Longer Than Living Together, glowers the Reuters headline. You have to read to the bottom of paragraph two before learning this CDC study reveals that the principal reason cohabitation is less enduring than marriage is...because most cohabiting couples turn into married couples within three years of signing their first lease. Also, most 13-year-olds turn 14 within the year!
It's hardly news that most people approach cohabitation as an interstitial stage — something you do because you love each other and share a commitment to the relationship, something you do until either the usual sorts of problems do you part, or the prospect of marriage solidifies and becomes mutually desirable. (The number of couples, I think, who enter into cohabitation exactly as they would a marriage, that is, with the specific intention of the relationship lasting until death, but know also that they do not wish to ever marry, is small.) People live together in good faith, you believe that what you have might last — but if it doesn't, well, at least you don't have to go through a divorce.
The same study reveals that for the average couple, living together before getting married actually decreases, by 6%, the chance that their marriage will last ten years or more. (The opposite is true of couples where both members are college-educated, suggesting the vast role class plays in this discussion.) This seems to suggest that some relationships — wait for it — simply aren't going to last, no matter what.
Living together for long periods strikes me as an eminently logical option. For one thing, even if a given relationship is ultimately unsuccessful, cohabitation socializes you into the ways of a partnership, sensitizes you to living full-time in the presence of another person, and their needs, and teaches you how to recognize your own needs, too. (It can also make you aware of the unexamined beliefs about work, relationships, love, and gender roles that we all carry.) Cohabitation teaches negotiation and relationship diplomacy. Meanwhile, there is a mountain of evidence that marriage negatively impacts women. While in the past, in exchange for this personal cost, women, as wives, were extended some small measure of social protection, at least in the West marriage is no longer the necessary precondition for sex, childbearing, or women's economic security. (Or even for being looked in the eye at the grocery store.) We have control over our own fertility. We have the right to maintain assets separate to any relationship. And we have the means to rid ourselves of unsuitable partners — and while divorce and breaking up a live-in union can be financially costly, it mercifully retains almost no social stigma. The market has been deregulated.
And that freaks some people out, apparently. Writes Hannah Seligson in the Wall Street Journal:
Unlike our boomer and hippie mothers who broke the rules of the '50s, my generation is marriage-minded. But society's messages to young women are so mixed that the path to that goal has been obscured and, at times, blocked. Those of us in our 20s and 30s know that dating — and getting into a relationship that leads to marriage — is at turns ambiguous, arduous, perplexing and often heartbreaking.
Nobody warned me there would be heartbreak!
"People are desperately looking for order out there, because they want to be in committed relationships," says 26-year-old Jessica Massa, who runs WTFIsUpWithMyLoveLife, which names ours the age of "post-dating," and sets about a superficial interrogation. "But the lack of signposts and guidance is making it very hard to get to the point where you end up in one." The editor of Thrillist, 29-year-old Adam Rich, says this: "This whole set of cliché indicators — call a girl to ask her out for drinks, then later a dinner date — are becoming less the dating norm. What if he Facebook messages her to meet at a wine bar where they share small plates? Where does that put them on the roadmap to the altar?"
Perhaps it's naïve, but I don't see the problem as relating to the small plates. I think the problem is that people are still writing articles that refer to "the path" to marriage and "the roadmap" to the altar. As if there were only one, and as if that were the goal of every man and woman on earth. Whether you're re-enacting the late-1950s ritualistic courtship that was the American "date," locking eyes across the happy hour crowd, or eating off plates of whatever size, the key isn't measuring your relationship against some (historically and culturally specific, probably half-imagined) gold standard and its various (spurious, wholly constructed, kind of silly) "signposts" and "indicators" — it's whether or not you like each other.
If you don't, then I think you know what to do. (Turn the experience into a laceratingly self-deprecating exaggerated tale of woe for your friends and mine it for laughs, duh.) If you did, great! Then do whatever it was that you enjoyed with that person again, maybe a bunch of times; stop and move on when it's not so good anymore.
Either that, or get married and stay married for 11 months and 8 days. I hear science proved it's all down hill from there.
Forget "Committed"; Women Want To Marry But Face New Obstacles [WSJ]
Living Together First Doesn't Make Marriage Last, Says Study [NYTimes]
Marriages Last Longer Than Living Together [Reuters]
Survey: Couples happiest At Three-Year Mark [UPI]