Mark Thomas and his girlfriend Julie spent 11 years sharing a home before they decided to take the advice of their friends and family and get married. Yet almost immediately after the happy day in 2007, the arguments started.
Just two years later they had called in divorce lawyers.
“I think we just drifted into marriage,” says Mark, 47, who is now living alone. “It seemed like the obvious next step, but I don’t think we’d have done it if we hadn’t been living together already.”
Cohabiting has become the norm in modern society. About 80 percent of us live together before tying the knot.
It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. For one thing, sharing resources in a time of austerity makes good sense – how many of us can afford a bond and bills alone?
Plus, the agreed wisdom is that it makes sense to “test” the strength of your relationship by living together and seeing if you can stand your beloved’s morning breath, dirty washing and annoying habits.
No surprise then that a US survey conducted in 2001 found that about two-thirds of twentysomethings believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.
Except that, according to psychologists, it doesn’t necessarily work like that. On the contrary, several studies show that couples who live together before marriage are more rather than less likely to split up once they do tie the knot.
On top of that, couples who lived together before they married report lower levels of satisfaction afterwards.
So what’s going wrong?
Psychologists say part of the problem is that men and women often start living together for different reasons.
“Women tend to agree to live together because they think it will lead to marriage. But they still want a man to propose, to put a ring on their finger, to say: ‘I will protect and look after you,’” says clinical psychologist Dr Helen Nightingale.
For men, however, cohabitation may be a way of putting off commitment because they’re not sure they want it. Later, they may find themselves agreeing to marriage out of little more than laziness – storing up problems for the inevitable tough times every married couple faces.
A study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that about 19 percent of those who cohabited before getting engaged had later suggested divorce compared with just 12 percent of those who moved in together only after getting engaged and 10 percent of participants who did not cohabit before getting married.
Lead researcher Dr Galena Rhoades, of the University of Denver, explained: “We think that some couples who move in together without a clear commitment to marriage may wind up sliding into marriage just because they’re already cohabiting.”
In short, people who live together first are more likely than those who don’t to “fall” into marriage instead of actively choosing it.
This was the case for Claire Canning, 43, who spent several years in her twenties unable to extricate herself from an unsatisfactory “live in” relationship with her partner James.
“We shared a flat and two cats,” she says. “I was very unhappy, but getting out of it seemed so complicated.”
Instead, when James proposed as the couple made up after a particularly bad argument, she accepted. “It seems absurd now,” she admits. “But at the time, I thought that if I agreed to get married, things would work out. Plus, I had moved into his flat and had nowhere else to go.”
Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Janice Hiller sees this all the time. She says: “I see many young couples who’ve been together for four or five years encounter difficulties. But instead of wondering whether their problems are the signs of something not being right, they get married in the hope that everything will magically get better. People find that the complexity of untangling everything is too enormous.”
The problem is that a shared tenancy or bond, joint custody of the pet or even a desire to have children are all bad reasons to get married.
“You should only agree to it because you want to spend the rest of your life with that person. It should have nothing to do with finances or convenience,” says relationship counsellor Francine Kaye, author of The Divorce Doctor.
“You don’t have to get married these days, so it’s irresponsible to drift into it. It makes a complete farce of marriage, which is the ultimate expression of commitment.”
Claire admits: “I would never have agreed to marry James if we hadn’t been living together. He put a lot of emotional pressure on me to say yes. I agreed, but I never thought about the long-term issues.
“I kept telling myself: ‘When we get married, it will be better. When we get a house together, it will be better. When he changes his job, it will be better.’”
Couples often slide into living together without really thinking about it and then slide into marriage when the relationship gets into difficulties. They think that by formalising it, they can rescue the situation.
But with marriage comes higher expectations, and this will widen any existing cracks. What we will accept from a partner may be simply unacceptable from a spouse. “There’s a sense of possession and control that can change the dynamic of a relationship,” says Hiller.
Says divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt: “I hear the same story from clients time after time. Men describe how their partners took a relaxed approach to them going out and doing their own thing while they were cohabiting, but they suddenly started being demanding after the wedding”.
“And from women, I hear that men are irresponsible and want to carry on as if nothing has changed, even after they’ve got children. Behaviour that is tolerable during cohabitation becomes intolerable when you think you’ll be stuck with it for the rest of your life.”
Mark Thomas seems to bear this out. He doubts he will ever move in with a partner again: “Over time, what happens when you cohabit is that you lose that spark and the relationship becomes mundane.”
Claire agrees: “The moment I said yes to James, I started to feel the walls closing in. Every time we argued, I thought: ‘This is what life is going to be like?’”
Astonishingly, despite her reservations, she carried on planning the wedding. “We’d booked the church and the reception plus we had a huge engagement party, and I felt I couldn’t call it off.
“Then I thought I was pregnant and felt nothing but dread. That’s when I realised I was making a mistake. The ironic thing was that after I broke it off, James admitted he had been having doubts, too.”
Claire moved out, initially renting a room from a friend. When she got her own flat, she had to take on extra work on top of her office job, including looking after her boss’s children, to pay the bills.
This unhappy experience meant she was wary of cohabiting when she met a new man, Peter, 45. “I didn’t want to feel trapped again,” she says. “Anyway, I loved my flat and his was dire – he never cleaned it. You’d open cupboards and the contents would just fall out.”
As a result, the couple never lived together until they sold both their flats to buy a marital home. “It was very unusual,” she admits. “My friends all teased me for being so old-fashioned.”
Not living together before tying the knot doesn’t make cohabitation afterwards any easier – it just means the couples who do it have to try harder to make it work.
“Peter turned out to be incredibly messy and left bath towels and clothes all over the floor,” remembers Claire. “And I think he found my healthy eating regime hard to adjust to. But we were still in the first flush of love, so we negotiated our way around the domestic issues very quickly.
“If we hadn’t been married, we might not have been so forgiving.” Thirteen years later, they are still together and have two children.
Another couple who chose not to live together before they got married are writer Alison Billeness and her husband Gavin, 35, an art director.
Alison says: “We must be one of the only couples that didn’t already have the toaster and towels and other wedding-type gifts before we got married.
“I do think you probably lose some of the mystique when you live together – you don’t really want your fiancé knowing how often you shave your legs or pluck your eyebrows. And when we moved in together we’d never argued over whose turn it was to wash up or whether he’d left the toilet seat up.”
Five happy years on, Alison is certain that it was the right decision. “Even the pastor was surprised that we weren’t already sharing a bed. But it made getting married all the more special as we had the house and living together for the first time to look forward to when we returned from honeymoon.” – Daily Mail