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Living Together vs Getting Married

This weekend, I witnessed the spectacular end of a couple living together. She had been trying to make it through the end of the lease, despite knowing she was done with her overbearing, abusive boyfriend. Fortunately, she and her children left with only emotional scars.

It made me think about this sea change since I was a teen. Back then, almost everyone got married within a few years of high school graduation, including me. Lots of folks had sex before they got married, but few shared a home. The change since then has been huge.

I lived with my current husband for several years before we married. Unlike a lot of people, we did not view ours as an experiment to see how we'd do as a married couple. If there is one thing I have learned from personal experience and relationship research, it's that such experiments tell you nothing. Just holding yourself separate from the relationship until you see how it goes makes it a very different relationship from a marriage. And the fact that it is a romantic, sexual relationship makes it very different from a relationship with any other roommate.

Before we rented a house together, I got to know him well. I knew I needed at least a full year of seasonal and annual trigger events to see who I was dealing with. Almost everyone is happy and hopeful and full of plans when they're falling in love, but a few are experiencing mania, and you need to see if you can function as a couple during their depressive phases, too. Love makes it easier for all of us to handle minor frustrations, but if you're going to mix a relationship with living together, you need to know your partner's ways of dealing with bigger frustrations, because there will be plenty of them, many with you at the center. Anyone you fall in love with will have many other people, living and dead, influencing them. Many of them show up only once a year or so, but they will be part of your life together if you share a home.

People planning to to live together for only as long as it's working out usually give the selection process a lot less due diligence than those choosing a partner to marry. As a result, more bad things happen to them. And because they did not marry, they are not nearly as well-protected against those bad things as people who marry, because marriage conveys a lot of automatic rights and benefits. It also usually brings with it a lot more extended family support for the relationship.

For this reason, when we moved in together before he was ready for marriage, we waited 16 months after falling in love. We discussed all the big ticket items, like children and how to handle our money, in advance. We spent time with each other's family and friends. We had wills drawn up with each other as beneficiaries. We named each other as our health care proxies. We put each other down as beneficiaries on our retirement accounts and insurance policies. And we chose a house neither of us had already lived in: no memories of other people, no how-I've-always-used-this-space, no need to give up any space. Relationships need every advantage they can get when they're young and fragile.

We married after a few years in our shared house, and our 18th wedding anniversary is coming up soon.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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