Cohabitation (long-term):   Why will women and men not commit?

Hey everyone,

Let’s dispel the myth that many of us encountered in early childhood “fairy tales” (do fairies really exist?): . . . . “and they lived happily ever after.”

Only in fairy tales (or perhaps in romantic dreams) do the lovers (spouses) live happily ever after.  Human beings, being as they are very imperfect in character, are not capable of living happily ever after with each other.  Marriage is a tough (difficult) proposition to be sure.  But, as Nietzsche said “anything worth having is worth working for”.

Many young and not so young couples choose to live together (co-habitate) rather than get married.  And, in many, many cases, the co-habitation is long-term for several years.  After several years of living together, many of these couples will decide they are really ready to get married.  They feel  ready to make a formal and public commitment to each other for the long run (’til death do you part or something like that, we cannot even remember the vows we exchanged on the altar so many years ago!).

Here is the issue to note:  Many of these delayed marriages end in failure and in ugly and hurtful (lose-lose) divorces.  Why is this?  What accounts for this after the couple’s long-term “trial” marriage (cohabitation) looked so promising, and the woman and man really believed they were (deeply) in love with each other?

(The extreme (hardcore) sexual pessimists in some religious circles will readily say the culprit is the sex prior to marriage.  While we value sex and are “sex positive” and also believe that ideally sex ought be reserved and saved for marriage, we reject this simplistic and false assertion.)

We think that the failure rates of these delayed marriages is primarily due to the risk averse nature of the two spouses’ personalities or “mind-sets”.  As well, a distaste (and reluctance) for making personal sacrifices plays a major role in the failures of so many of these marriages.

Let’s take on the personal sacrifices angle first.  Any successful human relationship requires ongoing sacrifices and effort from all individuals involved to survive and prosper for the long run.  Think about it.  My father and I have a failed relationship, and it is bad.  I look back and wish that we could have had a better relationship, but the ongoing effort for that was not coming from him for various reasons.  Successful human relationships are not one way streets, they involve give and take and effort from all participants.  These relationships also require mutual respect.

Wives and husbands, please consider that your spouse was not put on this earth to completely and selflessly revolve his/her life around your every expectation or every fancy or every whim.  Your spouse is not your plaything or toy or your mindlessly obedient pet dog.  If you are harboring that idea in your mind, you are not fully mature in your understanding of relationships.  This mistaken attitude is present in some women when they are thinking to themselves “He is so lucky (or fortunate) to have me as I am such a prize.  He needs to do more for me.  I really do not need to give him much as he is so lucky to be with me.”  That same or a similar attitude is found in some husbands.

It needs to be stressed again that for any human relationship, more so for marriage, to succeed, endure, and prosper over many years, there needs to be ongoing effort and sacrifices made by all participants.  If one is not committed to making the efforts and the sacrifices, do not harbor unrealistic expectations that your relationship will survive long-term.  If you are a “taker”, your spouse, who may be more of a “giver” type personality, will eventually (it may take years) tire of such a one way or dead-end relationship for him/her.  You cannot be too selfish or too self-absorbed, and realistically expect to have a happy marriage.  It does not work that way in the real world.  We bet you can think of such relationships in your circle of friends and relatives and co-workers.

These marital failures are not to be blamed on the institution of marriage.  We do not fault the automobile that runs over a pedestrian, rather the blame is due the reckless or drunk driver of that auto.

Many people are risk averse.  By this, we mean that they do not like taking on risks, nor being exposed to risks, and do not recover well or quickly when they are victimized when risks of bad events turn into realities in their lives.  (There is actually a book that came out in recent years that addresses this at some length and even postulates a genetic component of this.  The Impulse Factor – Why Some of Us Play It Safe and Others Risk It All, by Nick Tasler (2008).)

Risks are inherent in living.  There is no way around that.  In seeking to avoid or minimize some risks, we may be exposing ourselves to other risks.  The employee on his/her lunch hour leaves the office and crosses the street when the traffic control signals indicate that he safely can.  The pedestrian is stuck and killed in the cross walk when a vehicle slams through the intersection running a red light.  Rare, yes.  But, it does happen each year a number of times.  Buy some beachfront property in an area that has not been hit by a major hurricane (typhoon, or cyclone) in a hundred years.  Guess what.  In the second or third summer after your purchase, your home could have its roof torn off and a storm surge flood its ground floor.

We can try to avoid risks.  We can attempt to manage certain risks.  We can buy insurance to protect ourselves from serious, adverse financial consequences of some risks.  But, we cannot eliminate all risks from our lives.  This is not profound philosophy.

After having lived together for several years and with relatively smooth sailing through the waters of life for those years, many couples make the commitment and get married.  However, they are really hedging their commitment.  Given the smooth sailing for several years, they both feel safe to make a commitment to the other as they feel that there will be no serious storms in their future together, no big bumps in the road to come.

What they are really saying to each other in their marriage vows is this:  “I will love and stay with you for as long as the sailing is smooth, but if we hit rough seas, I am not so sure”.

And, then when there are major stresses in the marriage, as there will inevitably be, one or the other or the spouses (or both) opt for calling it quits and seeks a divorce.  The stresses can come from many directions.  Having and raising children is a major stress on a marriage.  (We are not anti-child.)  Many cohabitators postpone having children until after they get married.  A spouse may lose a really good job and be unemployed for some time.  This is another major stress on a marriage.  The wife or the husband may be involved in a serious accident in a car or at the workplace.  One of the spouses may have serious health and illness issues strike him or her.  (You get the idea.)

The combination, in the spouses, of being very risk averse and not willing to make serious and ongoing sacrifices dooms too many marriages to ugly endings in divorce where all stakeholders are losers, not the least the children.

For those of you who are dating, or courting (which is better than dating) or who are currently co-habitating, we recommend that you discuss this issue of commitment seriously and thoroughly with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or “partner” (we dislike the term “significant other”).

Talk about it and ask the appropriate questions.  Think about it.  Does your partner appear to be too risk averse?  Does he/she give evidence in their behavior of being too self-centered, too selfish?  Or, does he or she show a maturity that does not run from life’s very real risks?  Does he or she give evidence of a willingness to make sacrifices for you and for the good of your relationship?  Or, does he or she get resentful of you when sacrifices or concessions are required?

Food for thought.  Hopefully, this essay will be of some help to at least a few readers.  If you know of anyone considering marriage or in a budding relationship, feel free to pass it on to them.