Marriage: The Gold Standard
With the Sochi Olympics in full swing, stories of various athletes have circulated the Internet, along with medal counts, event updates and video clips of triumphant moments. One such athlete profile followed the headline: “David Wise’s alternative lifestyle leads to Olympic gold.” Wise’s “alternative lifestyle” involves marrying at a young age and regularly attending church. He is 23 years old, and he and his wife have a two-year-old daughter.
Not long before NBC referred to young marriage and parenthood as an “alternative lifestyle,” an Associated Press piece looked at the rise in “shotgun cohabitations.”
According to “As cohabitation gains favor, shotgun weddings fade”: “About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage, according to calculations by Daniel Lichter, a Cornell sociologist.”
The couple profiled in the article, Amanda Leigh Pulte and Matthew Gage, opted for the “shotgun cohabitation.” Gage moved in with Pulte in order to raise their daughter Zoey together. Pulte said marriage was too stressful an option, in part due to the rigors of wedding planning.
“I want to marry when I’m ready, not because I’m being forced into it. Whenever I see couples do that, things don’t work out,” she added.
Yet, statistics and recent social science don’t bode well for the couple’s eventual walk down the aisle. “Researchers at Harvard and Cornell universities have found that only about half of mothers who were cohabiting when their child was born were still in relationships with the biological father five years later.”
A New York Times piece by clinical psychologist Meg Jay, “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage”, further investigates the type of decision-making associated with cohabitation vs. marriage. Jay considers a conversation with a recent client, “Jennifer,” who is divorcing her husband of less than a year. The two had lived together for four years before exchanging wedding rings.
Jay asks Jennifer about their decision to marry. “We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”
The phenomenon, often referred to as “sliding, not deciding” (a term coined by social researcher Scott Stanley), can lead to divorce, says Jay, because opting out of the relationship is not as easy as entering it.
Jay writes, “Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.”
Jay continues, “Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs. Living together can be fun and economical, and the setup costs are subtly woven in. After years of living among roommates’ junky old stuff, couples happily split the rent on a nice one-bedroom apartment. They share wireless and pets and enjoy shopping for new furniture together. Later, these setup and switching costs have an impact on how likely they are to leave.”
Jennifer, the soon-to-be divorcée interviewed by Jay, admits that she felt “like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife.” Their marriage seemed inevitable because they shared their belongings, friends and pets. Once they reached their 30s still sharing a home, the wedding seemed to make sense.
Conventional wisdom often regards cohabitation as a way to divorce-proof a marriage. It’s a sort of trial run to determine if two people are truly compatible. The reality is, however, as Jay remarks, that couples who cohabit are more likely to be less satisfied with their marriages and eventually to divorce than couples who do not live together before marriage.
Jay writes: “A life built on top of ‘maybe you’ll do’ simply may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the ‘we do’ of commitment or marriage.”
Ironically, Pulte’s rightful desire to not feel forced into marriage might be undermined by her decision to cohabit now.
If cohabitation is not the divorce-proof solution that today’s young adults are seeking, then what can be done to affirm marriage to the more than 7.5 million couples reported to be living together today?
Enter freestyle halfpipe skier David Wise once again. The 23-year-old gold medalist doesn’t see his marriage or fatherhood as an encumbrance to his freedom or his interests. “I think my lifestyle — the fact that I have a little girl to take care of and a wife — really takes the pressure off of my skiing, because first and foremost I have to be a good husband and father,” he told NBC. “When you’re out there skiing for something bigger than just yourself, it just takes a lot of the pressure off for me. I’m happy and content, fulfilled. I have an amazing life outside of skiing. I don’t have to perform at any time, I just get to go out and do what I enjoy doing.”
Statistics might tell us that cohabitation is not leading young people to the lifelong fidelity and happiness they are seeking, but it is the stories of individuals like David Wise who offer the testimony of lived experience that lifelong commitment is not enslaving or draining. It’s a gift of self that is authentically fulfilling, and as Wise reminds us through his life, is possible.