Third Alternatives: Marriage vs Cohabitation


As I wrote yesterday, I recently received a comment from Lorraine K, who wrote:

Found your blog about a week ago and I have really learned a lot. I am wondering about third alternatives for future relationships because my S.O. and I broke up over two issues that I now think may have been avoided if we had found Third Alternatives. The first issue was about a few of his rude friends. My boyfriend didn’t want to give up socializing with them. I didn’t want to socialize with them and felt like he was prioritizing his friends over our relationship.

The other issue, and the main reason I walked away from the relationship, was that my bf wanted to cohabitate before getting married or even engaged. I would have considered it if we got engaged (a ring, and set a date). There were other minor issues but these are the two that I think you may be able to help me find Third Alternatives because these issues have appeared with other relationships and even within my first marriage. I would appreciate any insight on these two matters. Thank you in advance and for this blog. L.K.

Yesterday, I addressed the rude friends. Today, I want to tackle the cohabiting.
This time, the two obvious first alternatives are (1) move in together and figure out later if you want to get engaged or married or (2) get engaged or married and then move in together.
It’s perfectly reasonable to want some sign of long-term commitment before moving in with someone:

  • The risk of harm or desertion or financial loss or a sudden need to move is much higher with someone not committed to a relationship.
  • Those who live together before getting engaged are more likely to break up in general and more likely to divorce if they should marry after moving in together.
  • Who owns what tends to get murky, something not really obvious until one of you dies or becomes incapacitated and the other’s relatives take over or one of you leaves or kicks the other out.
  • It’s hard to work toward any long-term goals together, because that would require both of you committing to stick around for at least that long.
  • Because you’re both keeping the out-of-here option open, you also need to stay on guard for your separation rights, adding to the chance that you will separate.
  • You’re more likely to find one of you is fearful of commitment and hoping to lose the fear and move forward into a long-term relationship while the other has deliberately sought a partner with such a fear to avoid ever confronting this fear in herself.
  • It increases the chances of having children out of wedlock and reduces the chances of them growing up in the same home with both parents.

It’s also perfectly reasonable to want to avoid waiting for a joint commitment to want to share a home:

  • It saves money over living apart.
  • It saves on driving time to see each other.
  • It offers lots more opportunities for sex.
  • It may mean you can get out of some chore you dislike: cooking, cleaning, shopping, mowing the lawn, diapering your kid, etc.
  • It reduces the chances your partner will take up with someone else and dump you.
  • Unless you’re really wealthy and well-known, it pretty much does away with the risk of being held financially responsible for your partner after you separate.
  • In some cases, it lets one partner receive (and share) government benefits intended for those without partners.
  • In some cases, it allows a delay in a divorce from a previous spouse.
  • And it’s a good way to avoid getting the church or state involved in your relationship, whether you intend it to last or not.

Once again, the best Third Alternative is the one that gives each partner what they seek from their first choice and avoids what they dislike about the other’s first choice.
First, you jump the net and agree you want what your partner wants, just not at the cost of what you want. You let go of the notion that these are the only two alternatives to choose from.
Then you find out your specs: what one of you wants and wants to avoid, what the other of you wants and wants to avoid.
When my husband and I had been a couple long enough to observe each other’s character through five seasons, we talked about living together. My now husband wanted to avoid state or church involvement in our relationship, and he wasn’t sure he could promise until death do us part, but he wanted as long a relationship as we could manage.
Although I preferred marriage, what I wanted was that same relationship that would last as long as we could manage (because I figured I had some pretty good skills at making it last). And I very much wanted the same rights in hospitalization or death or emergency that I would have if we were married and inheritance of his half of any assets we built or acquired as a team. I also wanted to protect my son from my previous marriage.
So our Third Alternative was to see a lawyer and draw up documents that covered everything that comes automatically with marriage (will, power of attorney, living will, beneficiaries on each other’s accounts, etc.) and to rent a house with both names on the year-to-year lease. Three years later, he proposed marriage, and I gratefully consented.
For other couples, the answer that works well for both parties might be to:

  • Rent apartments in the same building or on the same street until both are ready to marry, increasing the ease of spending time together while remaining single and uncommitted to the relationship
  • Move in together with the understanding that if they are not engaged by the time the lease must be renewed, the decision to continue or end the relationship will be in the hands of the one seeking marriage, who would then be free to start looking for someone less fearful of commitment
  • Borrow or earn the money needed for the commitment-shy partner to feel ready to marry, and get engaged
  • Give the one who would prefer marriage an easier out from an uncommitted relationship, such as a bank account to be used for moving out and setting up a new home
  • One or both change schools or jobs or whatever outside factor makes the one partner want to postpone marrying
  • Set up a financial plan to protect both partners’ interests while their future together is uncertain, a detailed agreement about shared responsibilities for their joint household, and a careful plan for birth control to avoid the complication of shared parenting
  • Go through Imago Therapy or other relationship counseling together for an agreed-upon period to help each decide whether their position on cohabitation or marriage is likely to change in time to make it worthwhile to continue the relationship

Which one is the right one? The one that makes both of them at least as comfortable as their first choice. And you’ll only find it by honestly exploring what each of you seeks to gain from your preferred choice and seeks to avoid from your non-preferred choice and then pooling your talents to find a way to please both.
The toughest part of the process is jumping the net. You must stop defending your preference, stop fantasizing about how things will go, and get honest with each other. If you can do that, the rest is actually rather enjoyable. And the outcome is a joint triumph that strengthens your relationship.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Thank you Patty for both articles. Only wish I had found your blog sooner, but now I have some ideas for future relationships. Lorraine

  • Lorraine, thank you so much for asking. I know many other people are dealing with the same or similar issues and will benefit. When that next relationship comes along, I hope you’ll ask more questions.

  • Great article, Patty! I love the way you break down all the pros and cons, as well as various alternatives.
    When Hubby and I had been dating a while, he asked me to move in. I was disappointed – I really thought he was about to propose marriage. I felt that just moving in to vaguely see how things develop was an immature approach, and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I told him I’d be happy to continue our relationship as it was, to give him the time he needed to decide if he wanted a real commitment. So that’s what we did.
    About three months later he proposed and I accepted. With an officially announced engagement, I moved in, and we were married six months after that.

  • Rosemary, I love hearing another Third Alternative that worked for a real couple. I know these help everyone who reads my blog posts.
    The initial shock that someone we love wants something different from us is not an easy one to deal with. You could have decided he wasn’t the right man for you just because he thought living together was a good move when you thought it was immature move, but you respected his views and found a way to satisfy both of you.

  • Just a quick observation. I work with conflicted couples on a regular basis. In my practice I have found that married couples are more committed to their relationship than unmarried ones. Translated this means that married couples are more likely to persevere and work through difficult issues than unmarried ones. Commitment in the beginning of the relationship impacts the way problems are addressed later on.
    Dr. Ken Newberger

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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