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Living Together: Can It Be a Harbinger of Marital Bliss?

June 22, 2006 By:
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Laynie Ginsburg, 21 years old at the time, knew that in order to give her budding romance an opportunity to blossom, she needed to move clear across the country to Philadelphia, and try sharing an apartment - and, for a time, her life - with a guy she didn't know all that well.

The Omaha, Neb. native had spent the previous summer in New York, where she interned for MTV. It was in the Big Apple that she had a chance encounter with a Temple University medical student named Joshua Heller, who was home for the weekend visiting his parents. The two found themselves in the same group of twenty-somethings out on the town - the farthest thing from a setup.

"I just felt something. It's so hard to describe," said Ginsburg, now 25 and a staff member at Maccabi USA, which is based in Philadelphia.

The two exchanged phone numbers and took turns visiting each other in New York or Philly. But soon it was time for her to head back to Tucson and finish her senior year at the University of Arizona. They remained a long-distance couple for the better part of a year.

After tossing her graduation cap in the air, Ginsburg decided to move to Philly - where Heller was starting a residency in neurosurgery - even though she didn't know anyone else in the city, and had no job lined up.

If that wasn't incentive enough to try the roommate thing, there was also Heller's crazy hours as a surgeon. Ginsburg didn't think she would ever see Josh unless they shared an address.

For the couple, who had never lived in the same city and were suddenly living under the same roof, cohabitation replaced serious dating.

"My parents were a little hesitant. They didn't want me to get hurt," recalled Ginsburg, sitting on a couch next to Heller in their Center City condo that overlooks Washington Square. "But at the same time, they wanted to see if I could actually live with this person."

Chiming in, the more soft-spoken Heller, 28, admitted that he was "surprised that her parents went for it."

A generation ago, they might not have. Two generations ago, living together before exchanging vows - then simply called "shacking up" - would have been unthinkable. But now, when till death due us part can mean 60 or more years, to say nothing of the shadow that divorce now casts over all nuptials, cohabitation has become a common precursor to marriage.

But whether more couples are choosing cohabitation instead of marriage, or whether serial cohabitation - moving from one live-in significant-other to the next - poses a challenge to the institution of marriage, is a question that demographers and sociologists are still grappling with.

In what historians would consider a relatively short span of time - 1960 to 2000 - the number of unmarried couples living together increased tenfold, according to census data. Chalk it up to the main barrier to cohabitation - namely, the social stigma against premarital sex - falling by the wayside.

FDA approval of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution that followed in the 1970s also helped loosen the effect of certain pervasive social mores.

The '70s also saw a rise in cohabitation as a political statement, with couples rejecting the institution of marriage and insisting that the government have no say in personal relationships. Now, according to Rabbi Linda Holtzman, who teaches practical rabbinics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, there are a small but growing number of heterosexual couples refusing on principle to have a wedding ceremony until the same opportunity is extended to homosexual couples.

Holtzman, for one, sees living together as a natural barometer for testing the waters of marriage.

"My sense is, the more deeply you know each other before you make a legal commitment, the better off you are," she said.

Whatever the reasons, all told about 10 million people, or about 8 percent of all heterosexual couples living together, are unmarried, according to Census 2000. But those numbers actually fail to convey the prevalence of cohabitation in American society, according to Pamela J. Smock, associate professor of sociology and women's studies at the University of Michigan.

If you take into account married couples in the 20-to-39-year-old age range who have lived together before marriage, along with singles in the same age range who have lived with a partner at any time, the number who have cohabited hovers around 60 percent, according to Smock.

"The majority of first marriages - and even more of second marriages - are preceded by cohabitation," she said.

The tricky thing about assessing the impact of cohabitation as a social phenomenon is that it occurred alongside skyrocketing divorce rates, to say nothing of the rise in the average age of those who married, providing those looking for patterns with the age-old conundrum of which came first.

Part of cohabitation's appeal stems from the awareness that nearly half of all marriages fail, along with the sense that living together might provide some indication of the relationship's long-term success.

"I just hate the idea of people getting divorced," said Heller. "It's important to find out beforehand whether you can live together."

Smock said that there are conflicting studies as to whether the divorce rate is higher or lower if the couple lived together first.

Another incentive to living together is economic; as affordable housing continues to shrink in urban areas, it's become more difficult for even young professionals to afford to live by themselves. Indeed, for many couples, keeping two apartments has become a financially irresponsible idea.

How Have the Jews Fared?

When it comes to the impact of cohabitation on marriage among Jews, the data appears to be scarce.

Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, explained that Jews are actually less likely to be in a cohabiting arrangement than non-Jews.

The primary reason is simple. Jews are more likely to be married than the general population: 64 percents are wed, compared with 57.2 percent of everyone else. A second reason is that the average age of the Jewish population is older than the general public, according to Smith, author of "Jewish Distinctiveness in America," a survey published by the AJCommittee in 2005.

But, on the other hand, Smith said that, based on "a very small statistical sample," he's found that Jewish families are more likely to be accepting of cohabiting arrangements than the general population, and, in fact, that married Jewish couples are highly likely to have lived together before marriage.

So what does this all mean?

For Rabbi Ira F. Stone, religious leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, a Conservative congregation in Center City, hardly a couple comes to him looking to get married who haven't first lived together.

"By and large, most couples have come with more experience of being a couple," said Stone. "It's possible they have even lived with other people before that.

"Now, I maintain that there is nothing like being married," continued Stone, who has been married for 36years. "No matter how experienced the couple is at living together, something changes when you marry."

That shift comes about, in part, because the state, and the law, is now involved in the relationship, he said.

"You can't just walk out the door, even if you wanted to, because there are legal repercussions," said Stone.

For the rabbi, one of the downsides is that couples feel they know each other so well that they often forgo pre-marital counseling. He offers counseling, but doesn't require it, before performing a wedding ceremony.

"No couple believes they are going to ever have a problem. And that's good. After all, you wouldn't want them coming in thinking there might be one," he said, adding that in counseling he tries to get the couple to see that any marriage takes a lot of work.

Sometimes, in counseling, he's been able to see the obvious: that the couple doesn't belong together.

"I have counseled a couple over a period of time, and eventually, they became aware themselves that they shouldn't get married, and that was my intent," he recalled. "There were a few times where I thought the wedding was on shaky ground and I didn't intervene. It's very hard to make that call, and I've regretted it."

Ann Rosen Spector, a clinical psychiatrist with a practice in Center City, has been counseling couples for more than 30 years. She said she's seen a spike in the number of couples who share a place seeking therapy.

In fact, she said, the plot of the Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston film "The Breakup" - that an unmarried couple buy a condo together, break up, then require legal intervention to sort out the pieces - is becoming common.

"One of the things with couples is, you have to look and see if both people are in the same relationship," said Rosen Spector. "One person may be picking out china [patterns] in their head," and the other might have no inclination toward marriage, or children.

"But there isn't any guarantee that a marriage will work," she said. "The way you are when you're in your 20s is not how you are going to be at 30, 40 or 60."

In fact, Stone said that the prospect of divorce weighs heavily over many of the couples he marries, because so many of them are the products of failed marriages.

"My impression is that, based on their experiences as kids, they're taking marriage more seriously," he said "They are more aware of the pitfalls and are trying to avoid making the same mistakes their parents did."

So whatever happened to Laynie Ginsburg and Joshua Heller, who took quite a plunge when they decided to move in together?

Well, last month in Ocean City, N.J., Heller popped the question and she happily said yes.

"It's been smooth sailing for us since day one," said Ginsburg, with Heller quietly interjecting that there have been some minor swells along the way.

Heller said that he felt relived, and that a weight - along with some familiar pressure - had been lifted.

"But the thought of potentially having kids …," he said, without finishing his thought.

Later in the conversation, Ginsburg set the record straight - and, perhaps, put her fiancé at ease.

"We'll be married a good four to five years before we have kids."


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