It's inevitable: go out together long enough, and the subject of marriage--or living together--will come up. For those who are gun shy of marriage or want to find out what their partner is like on a day-to-day basis, living together can a viable alternative.
But before you pack your Rolling Stones collection into the moving van, you should consider the advice of two Orange County experts--an attorney and a psychotherapist--who warn that couples need to be honest about their intentions before playing house.
According to Diane Bates, an Anaheim Hills psychotherapist, and Terri J. Cleland, a Costa Mesa attorney, instead of sparks flying, relationships can go up in smoke when couples fail to discuss goals and expectations before sharing a home.
Cleland says that her five years of experience working in family law have formed strong opinions about what couples should agree upon before moving in together.
"Most couples don't realize that California family laws do not govern the distribution of property during non-marital relationships. So, unless they have a written agreement beforehand, breakups can be very sticky," Cleland says.
People frequently enter such a commitment without thinking they might later have to prove what was assumed and said about the relationship. The true owner of expensive objects may later be litigated when a couple terminates a relationship, Cleland cautions.
"Things they purchase together, they assumed as gifts, are often fought over later," the attorney says. "Let's say they buy an expansive sculpture. He pays two-thirds, she pays one-third. At the time, they're in love--no problem. They both believe in equal ownership. But let a breakup come between them, and suddenly it's his. Or she sees his share of the purchase as a gift," Cleland says.
To avoid problems, Cleland advises couples to state in writing how they will handle such acquisitions.
Bates agrees. The marriage, family and child counselor estimates that only about 2% of the couples she counsels before, during and after a breakup ever discussed the arrangement before moving in together.
"Nowadays I see a lot of couples move in together for convenience's sake; they tire of going back and forth to each other's homes, or it seems smarter to pool their resources and share the rent rather than maintain two households," Bates says.
Sometimes each partner has a hidden agenda. One may be hoping for marriage while the other wishes for a utilitarian relationship. Crossed signals and unspoken thoughts can cause resentments, Bates says.
"If one person is adamantly opposed to marriage and the other believes he or she can change their mind, or if convenience--and not commitment--is a major motivation, it probably won't work." Unless both people agree with the terms, she adds.
Bates suggests setting aside several hours for discussing individual and mutual goals and expectations. "Everything from daily work routines, such as who does which chores--housework, running errands, social planning--should be worked out."
The counselor advises couples to discuss conjoint goals and what they are willing to do to achieve them. She urges couples to discuss some unpleasant aspects, too. "Like, what you will do in the event of a job transfer, an unplanned pregnancy, the partner's parental role or even what you will do if a partner's former spouse relinquishes child custody. These are critical issues that most people ignore," she warns.
Children, Bates maintains, hold negligible rights in both love and power struggles between adults. "Kids nearly always look to the custodial parent for the appropriate decision. They trust and flow with the parent." Children, she says, don't think for the long term. "They deal with the immediate, and if it works now, they assume it will keep right on working."
Children 14 and younger are frequent casualties in wars between adults. Although older children are not typically too involved with parents who live together, younger kids must wrestle with feelings of abandonment and betrayal after a breakup.
"Aside from feelings of loss, there are feelings of protection for the custodial parent, who is also suffering a trauma, so the child often becomes the parent and is lost in the shuffle."
A child is commonly dragged along to the next relationship: Victim of the custodial parent's wishes and hopes for family life. "Each time, a child has an undercurrent of hope that the next one will last; they often blame themselves, thinking 'If it weren't for me (he or she) would be married--it's my fault,' " Bates says.
The psychotherapist encourages parents to talk with children about the arrangement, and depending on the age of the child, explain in terms they can understand before moving in together.
"Children are fairly malleable," Bates says. "They can accept most situations, provided they are dealt with honestly."