The Difference Between Marriage and Living Together is Bigger Than I Thought


As a young twenty-something I thought I had it all: an apartment in a hip part of town, a fun job, a cool dog, and a smart and charming live-in boyfriend. It didn’t occur to me that living together wasn’t just something my parents disapproved of: It was unhealthy.

As I’ve written before, it was heartbreaking to have completely given myself to this other person for all those years only to realize it was not mutual. I was all in, but there was some amount of withholding on his part that I was completely unaware of.

The sheer fact that we lived together made our relationship unhealthy. In hindsight, I think we would’ve ended our relationship sooner had our lives not been so intertwined. Making decisions based on what was best for me as an individual was almost impossible when we were cohabiting. Sharing an address makes it much harder to walk away, even if breaking up is what’s best.

We were living together, but made no promises to each other about the future. We also had no plan for what would happen when things got hard. Or when we disagreed. Or if life took us in different directions. It sounds naive now, but I never planned ahead because I never thought those things would occur.

The difference between marriage and living together is that marriage is not an open-ended arrangement. My husband and I signed up for a lifelong commitment to each other, not just a lease. We will have tough conversations when we’d rather go in different rooms and slam doors. We will go to counseling when we’d rather spend our time and money on something fun. We will apologize and seek forgiveness when we’d rather pretend it wasn’t that big of a deal.

It’s not that being married is easy and my husband and I always agree or want the same things from life. Far from it. But when things are hard, we know each of us will stick around and make the sacrifices to make it work. It is because our marriage is a commitment rather than an arrangement that we sacrifice even when we don’t feel like it. And it’s exactly those sacrifices that make our relationship strong.

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  • Commitment goes a long ways. People have a problem with sacrifice and commitment. When you buy a house you invest into it. When you rent a home you do what needs to be done, you don’t paint the walls or fix anything, you call your landlord to fix it. When you free load, you expect your rent to be free and possibly your utilities to be paid for too. Not investing anything towards it. I see myself as a buyer.

  • I was pleased to see your effort at making sense of relationships. My wife and I also have 5 children and our 40 yr. marriage has been harder than it needed to be. I will tell you why, fairly easily. To do this I would like to tell you an analogy I used to demonstrate the uncommon common sense of my favorite author – more about him later.

    Were I to have a conversation with you, I would, in the middle of the conversation at this point ask you if I could use 60 seconds of your time and tell you of some common sense that wasn’t common. Most people are game for such a mild challenge. This is how I proceed. [for this in print instead of verbal, you will have to read my words and answer in your mind or out loud, just as you would were we speaking…]

    “I will ask you a question and you will tell me an answer. I will suggest you are wrong and tell you why. You will agree.”

    “Here is the question: When you get married you have to learn how to sacrifice, right?” You reply, “We sacrifice even when we don’t feel like it, so Yes.”
    I reply, “I suggest you are wrong. If you are willing to make yourself unhappy so he can be happy, you drilled a hole in the bottom of your end of the boat. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the hole. Now your end of the boat is sinking lower in the water. His end is getting higher. He has a better view and is high and dry. If he makes himself – or you force him to be unhappy so you can be happy, he has drilled a hole in his end of the boat. Now you are both dipping water trying to keep from drowning. You are definitely not paddling and your marriage is hindered in getting somewhere.”

    “The alternative is what Dr. Willard Harley calls the Policy of Joint Agreement. Stated, ‘Do nothing without the mutual enthusiastic agreement of your spouse.’ You don’t do the things that make you unhappy – not even reluctant agreements. You don’t allow him to make the reluctant agreements. You f u l l y s h o w u p i n t h e r e l a t i o n s h i p to communicate and negotiate to a mutual enthusiastic agreement.The boat stays dry and you can actually get somewhere. ”

    Verbatim, the most often reply is “You are right. I never thought about it that way!”

    Dr. Harley has a book called _Buyers, Renters, and Freeloaders.

    Freeloader = “I’m in this relationship just so long as it doesn’t cost me anything. When it does, I’m out of here!

    Renter = I will pay my fair share but I’m not fixing what is wrong. I think it is chapter 5 or 6 that is regarding living together.

    Buyer = The buyer fixes what is wrong and improves what is right. The buyer is in it for the long haul.

    You can imagine the marriage where both are not buyers but a combination of 2 of the 3.

    Renters usually become as Dr. Harley has named, ‘Dueling Dictators.’ You sacrifice for me this time because I had to sacrifice for you last time… Wet boat/Sunk boat.

    A large informative web site, is an abundant resource to learn how to fall in love and stay in love (another book title of his). Great tools in the form of questionaires for you both to complete and share with each other to become and stay, buyers enjoying the relationship, keeping the boat dry – and actually getting somewhere. For an overview, click on ‘Basic Concepts.’

    I have no connection with the web site or the Harleys except for a great appreciation for their work.”

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