Hidden Costs of Cohabitation

I was young and he was not. It’s an age old story, and age is exactly what did us in.

woman waking with a smileHe professed his love and I believed him. He wanted to marry and I knew I wasn’t ready. So after a year of progressively serious involvement, I left my job to be with him, and we lived together.

I was happy, for awhile. I lived with him because I loved being together, and I saw that there was much to be learned in the experience of waking to someone, building trust and memories, cooking together, commuting together, and sharing our space as a couple.

But that isn’t necessarily enough. I sensed it, young though I was, but I didn’t fully understand it.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

When our relationship ended, I was no longer unaware of the costs to our living situation. I had shuffled my professional life for him, but at my age I hadn’t lost much as a result. Though breaking up was hard to do, the emotional toll was harder on him. He was forty. Then in my twenties, I was the one who initiated the split, knowing that what we wanted was different. I still needed freedom, experience, play. I was just beginning.

We dealt with each other fairly. We shared expenses. I had learned a great deal. Yet I remember thinking to myself after – if I ever live with a man again, I will be married.

Oh, that wasn’t on moral grounds. But I wearied of his jealousy – an aspect of the age difference I never anticipated – and also, the sense of enclosure I quickly succumbed to in our arrangement. I was in love but trapped, in love but losing myself, in love and giving too many of my dreams away to make him happy – around our domestic life and work schedules.

Considering that, I’d say my decision to cohabit over marrying was a good one; I made compromises (and was okay with them), set aside resentments (and felt them build), and learned how easily I slid into a life that I didn’t really want.

When you’re living with someone and not legally married, generally, ending things is easier.

The Age Issue: Older Man, Younger Woman

I look back and am astounded at my naiveté, recognizing that my generation of women fell into a strange transitional limbo, professing budding feminist values yet longing for loving relationships of a shape we couldn’t refashion at the time. I wanted to grow, to explore, to travel, to pursue my own dreams and love a man, yet I slipped into a traditional role that wasn’t unlike my mother’s. Except that I also brought home a paycheck.

Older man, younger woman?

He was even more grounded in traditional roles than I was, except he wasn’t supporting me.

And now, not only because I’m older, but having survived a marriage and its termination, I bring a more “nuanced” perspective to the issues at hand.

Divorce Wars and Life After

Divorce for some of us is more than a battlefield, more than a few skirmishes that continue for a year, more than a distant memory. It is the interminable war, the guerrilla war, the slow drip on the forehead that drives you a little mad, even as you try to predict the next attack.

It is isolation, it is humiliation, it is fierce protection of our children and at the same time a deadening of a more innocent self – one that once believed in our institutions, and our own judgment.

My marriage and subsequent divorce wars are the stuff of illusions and disillusionment, with a mixed legacy: two sons and the privilege of raising them, financial woes from which I’ve yet to recover, trust issues that lessen but may never dissipate entirely.

But one man divorced me, not all. One set of expectations fizzled dramatically; I know love is possible. I believe in it. I’ve experienced it. But I will not enter it again so blindly.

Remarry? Cohabit? Which Fits?

Would I ever marry again? Never say never, yet I doubt I would want to entangle myself legally. But I can imagine the desire to exchange promises in front of friends and family, and to live with a man I trust and respect.

Were I to cohabit at this stage, it would be a very different story from twenty-something. I have more to give in a relationship, and more at risk. No, not “things” so much as time which we sense disappearing more painfully as we grow older, and security – a job, a roof – which is easily lost in this country, and not so easily regained.

There are costs to cohabitation. Hidden costs, with no protections, as in marriage. An interesting article comparing the end of a living arrangement to divorce discusses exactly this issue.

Living Together Arrangements

I still believe there is value to living with someone. In fact, I love the Carrie and Big arrangement before their wedding, as well as what they arrived at after – eventually. Yes, it’s fictitious, but these characters nonetheless offer lessons. They find a way to allow each other some space, the proverbial room of one’s own that some of us need more than others.

As a woman and a mother, I need my soft places of renewal, and my time alone, which is cordoned off and impregnable. I have little of it, and its absence weighs on me.

I do not think this is solely a writer’s need but a human one; moreover, as women we give ourselves away too willingly – without allocating reserves, without submerging periodically in a metaphorical isolation tank, without retreating between rounds to a quiet corner from which we come back refreshed, swinging or smiling as needed.

Do you have alone time? Don’t you crave it?

Marriage Versus Cohabitation

Marriage is a legal state as well as one sanctioned by religion for those who adhere to an organized faith. Cohabitation (in the U.S.) doesn’t offer the protections or benefits of legal marriage (with some exceptions, of course, when it becomes “common law”), and cohabitation continues to hold stigma in some communities.

Marriage is presumed to be stable – at least for awhile. Certainly the complexity of undoing a marriage lessens the likelihood of taking it lightly – despite our current divorce statistics.

Theoretically, living together is a lesser commitment. You move in, you stay a number of months or years, you move out. I’ll turn to the example of Sex and the City again. Miranda did well living with Steve, and then making it legal.

There were transitions for each of them, of course. And there were more challenges for her – she was more set in her ways, and her career more demanding.

Costs Of Cohabitation, Lack Of Protections

But what if your arrangement lasts for years?

What if it splits down traditional roles, with the male as breadwinner and the female taking care of the household, while earning less or possibly nothing?

What if the woman puts the man through graduate school, and finds herself on the street two years later? Five years later?

As the article on cohabitation agreements says: 

… individuals who cohabitate, even for decades, are legally considered strangers when it comes to property rights. It is therefore critical that unmarried couples who live together discuss financial expectations, personal obligations, and identify property rights should the relationship end.

Is the woman always at risk? Is that a faulty assumption?

Relationship Options, Marriage Alternatives

I’m not recommending living together, though I know I would do it again under certain circumstances. I also recognize that it is a learning ground for both parties prior to marriage.

We need alternatives to “traditional” marriage – if for no other reason than to accommodate the millions of us who are divorced and reluctant to engage in its legalities again. Women especially need to consider alternatives and the practical costs – more often than not opportunity costs – in time, emotions, and certainly earning power. For women who are older (45+), might I add the ever elusive health care benefits?

  • If you’ve never been married, would you choose to cohabit rather than tie the knot legally?
  • If you’ve been through a bad divorce, would you prefer remarriage or living together?
  • If you chose to cohabit, would you consider an agreement to protect your assets – which is really a matter of protecting your future?
  • If you’re the one with more earning power and assets, would you feel comfortable with a cohabitation agreement?


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  1. says

    The Alternatives to Marriage Project, along with being an advocacy group, has resources for people to help them make arrangements. Unmarried.org is their site. (http://unmarried.org)

    As you know, I can’t imagine myself actually wanting to be in a committed relationship again, but if I were, I’d prefer something like this over traditional marriage. I want to make the decisions, and too many of them are made for us as part of this institution.

    Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

  2. says

    I was divorced (my choice) after marrying at 19 and after 20 years. I was 39 and my kids were 15 and 17. I was like a kid in a candy store and realized I was free to date anyone or no one as long as they were older than my kids and over 21. I vowed never to remarry or live with anyone. After 23 years I still feel the same way. If I had married the 3 who have asked I would have been divorced another 3 times. I love my own space (I own my home now) and I love men but the combination is not workable for me. I have been in an off and on relationship for the last 10 years, lovers, estranged with benefits without benefits and finally I am ready to depart from this and move forward. But what is forward. I have no interest in sharing my space. My ideal would be to find someone who owns their own home/place who wants to have a co-mingled space and keep our own spaces. We could get together 3 nights a week or 4 and then go back to our separate places. If this doesn’t happen I am content to be with myself. I left my marriage at 39 with no expectations or great desire to meet anyone or to marry again and I have felt so calm keeping that promise to myself. I have developed a life for myself about myself and including my kids and grandkids. If I were to die today I would die happy and without any regrets. Can’t do better than that.

    Thanks for your article today. As you can see I quite agree with almost all of it.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I know exactly what you mean, on all fronts, Madgew. Though I’d like that separate place to be in the neighborhood. (*grin*)

  3. says

    What a beautifully written post! Divorce as a “deadening of a more innocent self…once believed in our own judgment”.. You express the feeling of loss and regret so perfectly. And thank your for putting yourself out there and letting us into your history so bravely.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Like Madgew, I declined a few proposals of marriage in younger days, (which looking back, I believe would have ended in divorce). And I had my kids older as well, in the marriage I thought would last, but didn’t. Yes, the loss of innocence, Cougel. I think that’s a huge part of the sorrow. And the caution that doesn’t seem to dissipate.

  4. says

    I married young, at 19, we made it work for 9 years. I was bound and determined to make it work forever, no matter the difficulties. Like my parents.
    The longer I am single, the more I like being single and the more I think about how it would be to love again. I am tossed.
    One long term relationship I was in ended because we could not agree on where to live together. We lived an hour from each other and neither of us wanted to uproot our already divorce scarred kids. As a newly divorced woman, I didn’t want to give up the security of my own house. Because after a relationship doesn’t work out, defenses are always in the back of your mind as to what you will do or go back to if it does not work once again.
    I don’t know what I will do when I fall in love again. It will be easier to cohabit or marry again now that the kids are leaving the nest. But giving over and gambling self fully is the hardest part.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @notasoccermom, It’s interesting that you didn’t want to give up the security that you had – especially as your children depend on it, not just you. I get that. And I agree that once we’ve lived a relationship that has ended, we realize what happens (or can) when it does. Those “defenses” you mention.

      As for the risk, I remind myself that life is full of risk, and now that my sons are older, if I don’t go for what I want now, then when? Some of what I want has changed; the desire for a passionate and “real” relationship hasn’t. Thus, the act of putting myself “out there” – with all its ups and downs.

      No risk? You’re guaranteed failure.

  5. says

    I had my kids very young so I was only 39 with a 15 and 17 year old. As they went to college and lived away I got my total life back. And then I started to live like I was a teenager.

  6. LauraC says

    I have been pondering this very issue as my divorce is finalizing in the next few months. I don’t think I will be in the relationship seeking phase for a few years, however, I have wondered how I would approach a serious relationship. I wonder about having a “Pre-Not Quite Nuptials-Agreement” to protect my assets. At 45, I have a good career and some assets and don’t want to back pedal ever again. My 16 year old has had the unfortunate ring side seat for my two failed marriages. He thinks I’m happier and “better” without men. Such a big observation from such young eyes. Maybe I should consult him on the theoretical next contract I draw up.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      @Laura – Lovely to have you join the conversation. (And your son sounds very wise. I’ve consulted my own on many things – including my social life.)

  7. BigLittleWolf says

    @madgew – I misunderstood. Having kids older has its advantages. Finding yourself still raising kids over 50, especially post-divorce and in this economy – not among them.

  8. says

    If my marriage ends, I will not remarry. I was extremely happy cohabitating and would willingly do it again. Of course, the only man I cohabitated with was the one I married, so I realize I don’t have half the experience that comes with living together.

  9. NoNameRequired says

    Have so much to say but am very conflicted about all these strands yet hopeful, yet deer-in-the-headlights cautious… will you repost a phase II or even consider this one of your ongoing threads?

    THANKS TO ALL WHO POSTED. I am, like Dante, walking in a dark woods and see some lit fires and candles in windows now.

    Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost.

    The Divine Comedy, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I’d be happy to keep this topic going from various perspectives, NoName. Which are of particular interest to you? And glad to have a few more wandering in these same dark woods, with the sparkle of lights in the distance.

  10. says

    “But marry again? Never say never, yet I doubt I would want to entangle myself legally. But I can imagine the desire to exchange promises in front of friends and family, and to live with a man I trust and love. …Theoretically, living together is a lesser commitment. You move in, you stay a number of months or years, you move out.”

    Sweetheart and I lived together for 3 years before getting legally married. Because of that we statistically have a higher chance of divorce and there is nothing we can do to change the statistic. It’s general and doesn’t look at us personally, so we can improve our individual odds, but we cannot change what we already did. And for me it was not less of a commitment. Well, I want to say that and I believe it, but is it true. He was my first and only and I think that pretty much sealed the deal even though I did not know it at the time—or at least I denied it. I was reserved in the relationship without the physical relationship and would not take it to the next emotional level. But once we did take it to a physical level and I met-go of holding my emotions and feelings inside I also released my dedication and commitment. But I don’t think that is typical. Choosing to live with him was choosing to make our relationship permanent to me and yet coming from a background of divorce I said it was a practice since we had no legal ties binding us together. So which was it?
    But that is me and Sweetheart, not all cohabiters and perhaps not most. I would never have considered living with him in a romantic/physical relationship if we were not committed toward marriage and he felt the same.

    I’ve thought of what you are saying—a non-legal ceremony before friends where a couple exchanges promises…or vows if that is what they call them.

    But for most situations is that really a commitment?

    Okay, if the couple are gay or lesbian and there are legal barriers I get it. I wish there were not legal barriers, but if there are then they are doing the next choice and for some it is a religious ceremony with full commitment.
    The other exception I see is in the case of the husband of Terry Schiavo—the woman who was on a coma for 14 years and was brain dead. Her family were trying to stop him from pulling the plug and just said he should divorce her. He had a new ‘wife’ and children with that new ‘wife.’ He was catholic he loved his first wife Terry and I think he was being honourable. But since Terry was not legally deceased he was not legally free to marry.

    I have mentioned before that it may be a good idea to at least get a conversation going about alternative types of marriage—marriage for older couples who are often widowed and do not want to tie up their children’s inheritance—a new spouse should not have those rights to the property (especially if it was ancestral) of the original spouse if there are children or other relatives with rights of kinship and inheritance. That is just not fair. And older couples may want to maintain their pensions or retirement from their deceased spouse. I don’t know if different allowances for marriage would be considered no-prejudicial and thus they may not pass. But when I think of these arrangements I am thinking of couples well outside of child-bearing years and having children could negate some of the differences I guess.

    But I was thinking about commitment. Some people are just don’t want to be controlled by the government sanctions—you are real if we say you are… legal marriage. Some do this because they just like rebelling, some because they don’t want to be tracked and maybe they are conspiracy theorists—paranoid in my eyes I guess. But if someone refuses legal marriage because they don’t want the government telling them what to do, isn’t that exactly what they are doing? Legal marriage increases a commitment by connecting a couple legally regarding not only finances but kinship rights too. Your legal spouse can make medical decisions for you and has priority hospital visitation. Your boyfriend/girlfriend may be banned by the hospital or the family and you don’t get a say regarding important medical decisions if your partner is incapable of making those decisions for themselves.

    So should there be some paperwork a couple can sign giving these rights? Why get married, just write out a contract and sign it. Um, there is paperwork a couple can sign for giving such rights; it’s called a marriage contract.

    It has now become a sort of popular alternative for couples to revise the traditional vows from ‘as long as we both shall love’ to ‘as long as we both shall live.’ That sounds like a commitment for long as you are committed which is what a commitment is not. Oh sure, some commitments have start and end dates—a commitment to pay $300.00 a month for 120 months to pay off a student loan. But ‘as long as we both shall…’ does not specify an end time, it is vague. Commitments are specific even if they are generalize regarding detail. I vowed ‘for better or for worse’ as well as ‘in sickness and in health,’ but did not know specifically that those would include dealing with adultery and mental instability. But the timeline was specific… until death.

    I also don’t like the idea of prenuptial agreements. But they are a necessary legal addition for later marriages since there may not be alternative marriages to protect the inheritance of children. What I don’t like is the part that discusses the end of a marriage—other than the end referenced in the vows. Getting married and preparing for divorce—even though that does not mean expecting—is not appropriate and to me shows the opposite of commitment. Choosing to give yourself in marriage requires a trust which is part of making yourself vulnerable.

    “As a woman and a mother, I need my soft places of renewal, my time alone, which is cordoned off and impregnable. I have little of it, and its absence weighs on me… I do not think this is solely a writer’s need but a human one; moreover, as women we give ourselves away too willingly – without allocating reserves, without submerging periodically in a metaphorical isolation tank, without retreating between rounds to a quiet corner from which we come back refreshed, swinging or smiling as needed… Do you have alone time? Don’t you crave it?”

    Yes, I do, but I don’t think it is function of gender or being a parent (not that I would know regarding the latter). I think being a writer however is more telling—a significant portion of writers are INFJ. I am an introvert (INFJ) and I need my space to recharge. Sweetheart is not an introvert. On an at-home test he did measure as an introvert, but it was barely—almost halfway between introvert and extrovert and knowing him as I do I think he is at least a Dorothy Rowe extrovert. It’s taken awhile for him to learn and understand that I am not rejecting him when I need my space. But we take our space within out committed marriage. It’s part of communicating and understanding one another. I just got back from my Mom’s for a weekend where I helped care for Gram. Upon returning he commented that he doesn’t want me to keep going away—my last helping weekend away was at the end of May. But my cousin wants me to visit him too and I want to go—I was supposed to go and care for his Mom while he took some time away recently but that got canceled when she was hospitalized. He can fly me for free—and it’s really only a 2.5 hour drive. But I just got home and I know that I have to balance my time away—even if it’s only 48 hours with Sweetheart’s need for time together.

    Would I cohabitate again?

    Ugh, I don’t like predictive questions! I am quite religious, but I was when I lived with sweetheart before we were married. I sort of hope not unless I was an older widow and needed those protections I talked about. But if there were a marriage option that took those into account I think I’d choose that. But if Sweetheart died now…? Well, let’s take my infertility and need to have kids soon away since that changes the dynamics. If I had kids I would not because they would be priority. But as a single woman in child-bearing years…? Would I want to test it out again to make sure? I know what my logic says and so I will say No I won’t. But I also know that we never really know what we will do in unknown circumstances. I don’t do casual relationships—romantic of friendships. I insist upon long courtships rather than rushing into commitments too.

    For those who crave personal space not only in the form of time to themselves but also physical space that is their own, but who also are like me and want marriage, I wonder if a duplex like house would work. I think Oprah had a polygamous family on and they had a single structure with communal areas for all as well as space set aside for each family. Maybe that would work for monogamy too. I love sleeping—I’m talking about actual sleeping—with Sweetheart. I love having him next to me and I love the cuddles. But I don’t live in my hometown and sometimes I don’t feel I have anywhere to get away when I am upset and we are arguing—in my hometown I could visit family or I also like to go to the rural cemetery where it is peaceful. I sometimes want a small isolated space but feel like a freak when I go to the walk-in closet. But if it were a prayer or meditation room—maybe just change the name and keep the clothes in there—the change in label may seem more acceptable.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      What a rich and thoughtful response, @Rollercoasterider. I hardly know where to begin, except to say that I appreciate your taking the time for this – and sharing.

      You raise provocative ideas from your personal experience; I love the concept of a walk-in closet as “meditation” space (a name change would be apt rebranding), or perhaps a duplex, to allow for some amount of his and hers when you simply need your private time.

      I will say that when children are in the picture, all hell breaks loose – at least, it can. Time designated to be shared with a spouse can be tossed out the window with a scheduling change in work, an unavailable babysitter, an illness, or some other seemingly simple day-to-day parenting event. Time for yourself? Depending on family and finances, it may go by the wayside for years.

      I also don’t care for the “as long as we both shall love” aspect of more contemporary marriage vows. I am not against marriage; I am against going into it lightly, blindly, and without realistic expectations – which may, in and of itself, be unrealistic of me.

      There’s so much more to comment on here – and I thank you. I hope to return to this response again, and explore the ideas.

  11. NoNameRequired says

    Very helpful posts after mine, for which I am grateful. In my case, I would be very shy about marriage for both the unitive and sacred promise made, with additional concerns about property. My tiny assets would be needed to create, if possible, a small safety net for my three children — all under 27, with one in college this fall. I live on an extremely small salary and bite my nails several times a month to manage my bills.

    I wish, if married, I could have health insurance from a spouse or partner. But, would like to keep assets separate, so to care for respective children AND aging parents. I would not expect a widow’s half or third. But, would like to have a small, designated portion, perhaps a pension and part of Social Security.

    Also, if married, I would like to keep my small but essential alimony. Why is alimony constructed to leave my portfolio if I remarry or cohabit (in my state, petition for alimony can occur if I sleep regularly at a darling’s house three nights per week, on average, including shared vacation time). My alimony SHOULD be seen as my part of dissolving the family “biz” for my non economic or as the biz world says “good will contribution.”

    But, I am getting ahead of myself. As a practicing Catholic, I cannot be remarried within my tradition. I know all about annulments and am fairly sure my bond would not meet the annulment criteria. But, again, am getting ahead of myself: this is the rub that making the gift of self, fully and completely without reservation sends me into such a deep panic. Surely this is post-traumatic residues, but the feeling does insert itself into my present.

    My only refuge is to pull myself back into now-here space. And this is healing and helpful. I wonder if a relationship could be constructed if committed to now-here, with the effect as time unspooled by looking back, at a trajectory of commitment. But, no commitment other than to now-here is uttered. If this sounds goofy to you, well then, recall that I lived for 25 years in a very sad and painful, yet stumbling forward marriage. At some point, while sitting in Mass on Sundays, taking the sacraments with me, my former husband had been carrying on an affair. So, a promise made by both did not protect one, as the other broke the promise while the bond contracted was underway.

    Old story, I know, but the damage and scars are mine.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      NoName, I’m glad if any of the discussion here is in some way helpful to the healing process. I know that when I read your comments, I often feel welcomed into the deepest places of your thinking-being-feeling, or perhaps into a mirror of my own that I wouldn’t have seen without your particular light. I know that I find healing – and learning – in this process of writing and reading, of conversing and reconsidering, and in the generosity of sharing perspectives and experience that is part of this community.

      As for your here-now, I not only don’t find it goofy, but in my own way, I get it. And I find residue of post-traumatic stress to be an appropriate way to describe a sort of looking over your shoulder, tip-toeing on perpetually fragile ground, and the other shadows that are part of years of emotional and financial stress that come with the post-divorce terrain for some of us.

      Happily, it isn’t the case for all, but we do tread very gingerly into new relationships (if at all), and rightly so I think. Who doesn’t learn from damage and scars? The reasons may vary, but the legacy strengthens us in some ways and disorients in others. Thus, like you, I believe in the passion and tenderness of the here-now which is entered into with circumspection, a healthy dose of skepticism, and a surprising openness all the same – when we encounter someone incredible.

      Marriage? I entered into it with “forever” in my heart and spirit. The inability for one alone to live up to that leaves many of us lost for a time. And maybe wanting that something else – especially older – that protects our children, protects what little we may still have, but nonetheless offers a joining of sorts that is sacred, at least to us.

      I look forward to hearing more about your journey.

  12. NoNameRequired says

    Thanks to both Wolfies. BLW, the examined life is worth living. And, what you host here is helpful. And other Wolfie, thank you for the shout out. I am happy to be one of BLW’s i-friends.

    And, BLW – now-here is so much better than nowhere.

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