From the “no shit” files
In the 1980s, I sort of get the levels of confusion and distress at rising cohabitation levels from older people, since the practice was, if not new, rapidly expanding and entering the radar of people had barely even heard of that. But this is 2009, and reading articles that treat we who live in sin as if we’re a weird alien species with shockingly debauched practices doesn’t make a lick of sense. Hell, in some communities, being married is the weird thing to do. Not like “can’t fathom it” weird, but certainly I’ve had moments where I was shocked to find out some couple I know is actually married, since it seemed like too much trouble for laid back folks like themselves. But people will surprise you.
But back to this article. It’s debunking a myth that I don’t think actually existed, which is that people live together without the benefits of marriage because they’re practicing marriage. No one actually believes this, as far as I can tell. But there’s an aggressiveness to the article that inclines me to think either the author or the researchers are trying to debunk the idea that cohabitation is good for marriage, because it gives you a chance to practice it.
Most unmarried U.S. couples who live together aren’t trying to test their relationship — they just want to spend more time together, a multiyear study found.
Most couples also didn’t consciously decide to live together, the federally funded University of Denver dating and cohabitation study found.
In fact, two-thirds of cohabitors say they either “slid into it” or “talked about it, but then it just sort of happened,” said the study, presented Thursday at a Smart Marriages/Happy Families conference of marriage and family experts in Orlando, Fla.
This entire situation is complicated, but here’s what I see is going on: When the panic over rising cohabitation started, there were attempts by patriarchy-supporters to argue that couples who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate and that the relationship between the two is causal. It was a simplified, cherry-picking argument with a ton of flaws, including the fact that they cut off the number of years studying relationships, if I recall correctly, meaning that cohabitants who then married had a couple extra years to break up more than people who just married. In turn, defenders of the sinful fornicating lifestyle, while also pointing out that you don’t have to live together to fuck, argued that cohabiting before marriage could function as a trial marriage, a chance to decide if you want to take the plunge before you set yourself up for a massively failed marriage. This is harder to measure, I suppose, because who knows how many couples live together and break up without getting married?
This is is why I’m suspicious of this article. It sounds like they’re trying to refute the trial marriage argument by saying that’s not the intention, and also using scary language about lack of intention altogether. There’s also more than a hint of trying to make cohabitation look trashy. But no one ever argued that couples live together intending to try on marriage, and in fact, I would say that it’s more than a little creepy to see all romantic behavior in such mercenary terms. It was always assumed by pro-sin forces that you live together because you want to, and that the compatibility test thing is just a side effect. It’s much like how you learn to drive because you want to go to places in a rapid amount of time, but your driving skills improve as a side effect.
It’s almost comical how there’s more than a hint of hand-wringing over the flexibility and pleasure-orientation in people’s reasons for living together. I fail to see what the big problem is if most Americans decide to conduct their dating and romantic life because of pleasure, companionship, and desire as opposed to setting out to get married because it’s on your official checklist. Even people who would like to be married one day tend to balk if they go on a date and get the distinct impression they’re being interviewed for the job of spouse by someone who is more interested in entering the institution of marriage than the particulars of the relationship. Spouse-shopping isn’t pleasant behavior, and I don’t imagine many people would like it if their partners said, when they moved in together, “This will be a good test to see if we should get married.” No one opposes allowing that to develop, of course, so the distinction here might be subtle. But it means a lot to maintain an attitude of you’re just having fun and seeing what develops.
I’m also disturbed by the idea that it’s disturbing that people just fall into it or slide into it. I would think that anyone who lives in the real world would know that’s not as ominous as it sounds. What this has generally meant, over the course of my sinful choices and those of people I know, is something like this: You’re dating someone for awhile, and someone’s lease is coming up for renewal. You decide whose place you like more, and double up in that place, or move somewhere entirely new, which usually ends up saving you a lot of money. Or someone’s roommate moves out. Or someone gets a new job in another city and the other decides that they like them enough to tag along. Or you realize that you’ve been spending so much time at Apartment A that it’s stupid to keep paying for Apartment B, and you’re fucking tired of getting up an hour earlier in the morning so you can run home and feed the cats before you go to work. It’s not that people are trashy or sloppy. It’s that our modern era especially requires a lot of flexibility and ability to take opportunities as they come up, instead of crafting a plan and sticking to it, come hell or high water.
For conservatives, I’ve never understood why cohabitation specifically is unnerving when most people are fucking whether they live with their partners or not. But Figleaf said something that got me thinking:
Anyway, yeah, funny how people would ever live together because they wanted to spend more time together. This is not, incidentally, why traditionalists imagine you’d get married. That would be about being either a) horny if you’re being abstinent or b) being pregnant if you’re not abstinent. Which doesn’t have so much to do with actually wanting to be together.
Point taken. Cohabitation undermines the “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” ideology. If you’re going to live together without being married, odds are that you have no qualms about fucking without living together. Conservatives are especially invested in the idea that men naturally have no love for women, and that have to be lured into commitment with sex. Cohabitation really blows the doors off that, because it shows that men can actively choose to spend more time with women because they like them, not because they’re being baited with sex, which they could obviously get anyway. That people get married after living together really demonstrates that there’s no truth to the theory that men will not buy the cow if they can get the milk for free. Premarital sex doesn’t really do the same damage to the “men don’t really like women” theory, because as Figleaf said, you can always convince yourself that couples get married because someone got pregnant, or because the man is sick of having to be furtive about getting his sexual needs met.
Of course, once we buy that men can actually like women, then scary new possibilities—that they could respect them, that women may even be equal—start to emerge.
These uncomfortable conclusions don’t stop traditionalists from trying to paint a picture of how women who get penetrated without the benefit of having a wedding ring are hapless victims that are getting used for sex, because of course we don’t ever have sex because we want it, but because we’re trying to buy something from men. In fact, focusing on women as victims of men’s devious plans to get vagina without paying for it is an effective mental strategy for ignoring the uncomfortable piles of evidence that men actually enjoy spending time with women. So, I’m sure most conservatives see 13 million straight cohabitants and see 13 million female victims, sad sacks who joylessly give up sex in hopes that they’ll get the ring one day, unaware that they will never get it because they keep giving it up. That’s a harder to argument to refute, because you can’t see what’s in people’s hearts, and so it’s easy to say 13 million women want something they can’t have.
What’s harder to say is that 13 million men want something they can have but won’t take, even though it’s easy. This model assumes that men, given a choice between fucking without sharing house and living together, would usually choose the former. But they don’t. Because apparently they like women. From the complete misreading of what’s in men’s hearts, then, I can safely say that conservatives don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. That, and the fact that I’m pretty assured that I’m not moping around my house of sin hoping for a ring.