By Naomi Schaefer Riley
February 9, 2015
"What are the odds you'd be in this relationship if you weren't living with your boyfriend or girlfriend?" That's the question Scott Stanley asks people who cohabited before they got married.
Stanley, the co-director of Center for Marital and Family Studies, tells me that for surprisingly many people — including reporters who call to interview him — the answer is: You wouldn't be.
He says he first started to wonder about this question in the mid-'90s.
In a survey of couples married less than 10 years, he found that men who lived with their wives before marriage "rated themselves considerably lower in dedication" — what Stanley refers to as their "intrinsic motivation to be with this person."
In fact, he did other surveys and found the same was true for women, though to a slightly lesser degree.
When the researchers at the center puzzled over this question, they realized, "Some of these guys, because they moved in before marriage, married someone they wouldn't have otherwise."
It's a startling realization and one confirmed by the fact that respondents who had a firm commitment to marry (i.e., they were engaged or had set a wedding date) before moving in together didn't experience the same lower levels of commitment to the relationship.
They were "deciding, not sliding."
A clever doodle video produced by Stanley and his colleagues, just released Tuesday, presents this "inertia theory of relationships."
It's called "Relationship DUI" ("decisions under the influence" of first love) and it's worth passing on to any young adults in your life.
"You know how it is," the voiceover begins. "You're just living your life . . . And then wham, you run into your soul mate and your whole world becomes vibrant."
The video describes the joy-inducing chemicals released into the body at the start of a relationship — from dopamine to oxytocin — and how they can actually cloud our decisions.
Sexual activity increases the production of these chemicals, but even just going out to dinner with someone you're falling for can have this effect.
Under the "influence" of these drugs, the video explains, we start doing things that "lock us in" to a relationship. We get a joint cellphone plan, we co-sign a car loan, we adopt a dog together.
But after a few months, things may look different. Suddenly you wake up and realize that you don't really want to be with this person.
"You acted on the belief that you had a timeless love, but in reality you had a time-limited chemical high." Yet you've made it extremely hard to disentangle yourself.
It doesn't take many years living in New York City to recognize this story. How many couples move in together "just to save on rent" while they're in this state of mind?
But it's much more that keeps people in relationships past their expiration dates — including social restraints.
People don't assume the way they once did that shacking up is a step on the way to marriage, but most of your friends will still figure that living with a guy is a step closer to walking down the aisle.
For many women, that's the point: Talk the guy into living with you, and you're halfway to a ring.
Many men aren't thinking that. But, according to Stanley's research, even the ones who do wind up proposing may have more regrets after the fact.
Indeed, in a random-sample study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2010, 20 percent of people who married before living together had divorced; the divorce rate was notably higher, 28 percent, for those who cohabited before even getting engaged.
The video suggests that people beginning a relationship keep their own apartments, cars and cellphone plans. Instead of a dog, maybe jointly adopt a goldfish.
Stanley worries about young people "foreclosing opportunities to find the best match in a partner by prematurely constraining themselves" — that is, closing off other options too soon.
Many young adults might be surprised to hear that the best chance for a happy lifelong marriage is to keep your options open when you're young, but that seems to be the message here.
The more you can get to know your possible life-mate without locking yourself in, the better chance you have of breaking up with the wrong person and finding the right one. This used to be called "dating."