What is it Like to be Married
After Living Together?

Letter #1


Introduction: I received so many letters in response to my column, " Living Together Before Marriage," that I have decided to continue that topic this week. To help you understand the issues we will be discussing, read that column first.

I begin this column with a letter from someone struggling with whether or not to marry after cohabitating, and then I follow it up with two letters from spouses who describe their marriage after living together.

Granted, there are those who make a successful transition, but they are the exceptions. In most cases, marriage after cohabitation is an unexpected disaster. Since the number of couples who have chosen to live together before marriage is steadily increasing, is there anything they can do to avoid disaster should they decide to marry? That's the subject of this week's Q&A.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I am 31 and my boyfriend is 35. We have been living together for over 7 years. I am ready to make a commitment to marriage but he is unsure. He proclaims his love for me and says he wants to spend the rest of his life with me but he won't propose. Money is not an obstacle as far as buying a ring!

We are a healthy, active and happy couple for the most part. We barely ever fight and then it's just a discussion. Is there some sort of counseling we can go through to see if we are ready for marriage? Are there any books you would suggest? He says he feels uncomfortable talking to a counselor and feels he has failed at his relationship if he has to see one. I'd appreciate your advice. I'm just looking for some stability and commitment from him.

M.M.

Dear M.M.,

As you point out in your letter, you want commitment. That's what most people who marry want. But let's make sure we understand what the commitment will be. For most couples, it is to "love and cherish each other in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health as long as you both shall live." You mention that you have money, health and happiness at this point in time. Will you care for each other as much if you lose all of those advantages? I'm sure you would like to have that assurance, and wouldn't want your husband to abandon you at the first sign of trouble.

Let's imagine what will happen to you after you both make a commitment in marriage. Will you both make a greater effort to "love and cherish" each other. If that's what marriage would do for you, you should marry as soon as possible.

Sadly, couples that live together don't seem to care for each other after marriage as they did before marriage. Why is that the case after they make a commitment to care for each other? The answer is found in how the commitment is usually interpreted after marriage. It turns out that when you and your spouse make a commitment to care for each other unconditionally, instead of being motivated to do a better job, you tend to relax with the assumption that your spouse will care for you regardless of what you do. You don't need to do anything to keep your spouse caring for you since he made that commitment.

So the commitment of marriage often has the reverse effect that couples who live together hope it will have. Instead of encouraging each spouse to make a greater effort to care, it actually takes away the incentive to care. After all, when you live together, one of the only things keeping you together is the other person's care for you. If that care is taken away, you're history. But if care disappears after marriage, your commitment is expected to keep you together.

That kind of commitment doesn't work, of course. The proof that it doesn't work is the extremely high divorce rate among couples who live together before marriage.

I suggest that you and your boyfriend spend some time discussing what a marriage commitment means to each of you. Is it an assurance that regardless of what you do, the other person will continue to care for you, or is there more to it than that?

Chances are, you and your boyfriend have tried to give each other as much personal freedom as possible while you have lived together. That's what cohabitating couples usually do. After all, they're not married, what right do they have to try to change each other. They make adjustments when absolutely necessary to stay together, but nothing more.

The rule you have been following is "do whatever makes you happy and avoid anything that makes you unhappy." Once in a while, you will have a conflict where what makes one of you happy makes the other unhappy, but you probably solve it by sacrificing: I'll let you do what you want this time if you let me do what I want next time. You may also have tried to overlook or avoid areas of conflict whenever they appear.

I believe that the rules you have used in your relationship of seven years will become your undoing when you marry. Those rules that have protected your independence will destroy your marriage. They don't show you how to grow together and create compatibility, they encourage you to grow apart. When you follow them you eventually become incompatible.

So I recommend that the "commitment" you make in marriage be a commitment to a rule that protects your relationship from each other's self-centeredness and helps you build compatibility. That rule will guide your decisions so that they take the feelings of both of you into account simultaneously, instead of just one of you. Yes, you lose some of your independence -- you will not be able to do anything you feel like doing. But you gain a solid relationship that will help you survive "want, sorrow and sickness."

That rule that I recommend is the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). This policy, more than any other, guarantees marital compatibility and lasting love. But couples who live together prior to marriage tend not to follow that rule before or after marriage. To me, that is the most important reason that their marriages do not succeed.

Couples who do not live together before marriage usually begin their marriage with an understanding that they must both accommodate each other if the relationship is to last a lifetime. So without ever being told what rule to follow, they tend to know enough to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement. That's why their marriages are much more successful.

So the solution to your problem is quite simple. While you are still unmarried, try to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement whenever you make a decision. Assume that every decision you make will affect the other, and ask how the other feels whenever you plan to do something. If you can follow it while you are unmarried, there's no reason why you would not be able to follow it after marriage. And the longer you follow it, the more compatible and in love you will both become. You'll find that marriage will become an easy choice for both of you, and the marriage itself will be as successful as you hoped it would be.

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