Millennials Do It Their Way: Optimizing Casual Sex So Everyone Wins

Read between the lines.
If reading between the lines isn’t working for you, try speaking up and being direct!

Millennials coming of age experience in the United States has been uniquely influenced by their access to the free, unlimited sexual content widely available on the internet.  This access has served not only as a resource for their sexual curiosity and consumption, but as a primary resource for easily connecting to people who share their sexual preferences on the dating sites of the moment.  Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University analyzed data from a survey of more than 33,000 adults in the U.S. to measure the country’s shifting sexual landscape.  The data revealed that Millennials were the most likely generation to acknowledge having casual sex; 45 percent of them said they had slept with someone other than a boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse during their late teens or 20s.  Overall, adult acceptance of premarital sex increased from 42 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2012, an all-time high.  “Americans are spending more of their lifetime unmarried, so they have more opportunities to engage in sex with more partners, and less reason to disapprove of non-marital sex” reports Twenge.  She opines that increasingly permissive attitudes toward sex are a sign of the rise of individualism in America.  She explains “when a culture places more emphasis on the needs of the self and less on social rules, more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality are the almost inevitable result.”

More and more young adults are supporting the current trend in sexual decision-making, where commitment and emotional connection are seen as unnecessary precursors to first time sexual encounters with others.  In theory, this allows people to get their sexual needs met, while minimizing the emotional risks and responsibilities associated with interpersonal intimacy.  In my practice as a coach in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s relatively common practice for both men and women to report having sex with someone they’ve just met.  Based on this first sexual encounter, they may choose not to see them again, may establish a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement, or opt to get to know them on a deeper, emotional level through dating if a romantic relationship is something they’re seeking.  In most cases there’s a trial and error period, as people who are still very new to each other attempt to communicate their sexual preferences and get their needs met.  Millennials’ prolific use of texting as a primary form of communication, habit of avoiding vulnerabilityawkward interpersonal exchanges, and peer conflict can all contribute to frequent misunderstandings and rapid start/stops within their sexual encounters, regardless of what the end goal may be.  In some cases, getting stuck in a pattern of ineffective/unsatisfying sexual encounters can lead to poor health functioning or an over-reliance on recreational substances.

As a health educator I help people build the necessary skills to find, establish and maintain healthy sexual relationships.  This article aims to provide some practical guidelines for optimizing the outcomes of your casual sex encounters while dating, and insightful tips for decoding the opposite sex along the way.

Men seeking sexual encounters with women:

  • Adopt an early communication style that encourages a positive response from women.  What does that mean? Skip the crude humor in online and text exchanges- chances are, you’re likely only entertaining yourself (or infamously landing yourself in one those Buzzfeed Tinder Fail lists) and that’s not the point is it?  Humor is fine, and can be a good initial approach online, but seriously, a little goes a long way.  Increase your odds of getting a genuine response from women by taking yourself out of the dregs of online dating wasteland- try telling an original, funny story about yourself, relate to something personal on a woman’s profile, or at minimum, send a quick hello with your array of pics to see if what you have going on is of interest to her.  Have a friend (preferably female) screen your online pics.  It may seem trivial, but poorly chosen pics can make or break your online dating success.
  • Once you’re corresponding consistently with someone, be proactive and suggest a specific plan to get together.  While this seems like a no-brainer, a lot of guys fail to get the ball rolling while they have a woman’s attention.  Comedian Aziz Ansari conducted focus groups with hundreds of people for his new book Modern Romance, getting intimate details on why people have problems with dating.  He shares “The lack of clarity over whether the meet-up is even an actual date frustrates both sexes to no end, but since it’s usually the guys initiating, this is a clear area where men can step it up.” So guys, to optimize your chances of establishing a sexual encounter, strike while the iron is hot.  While you’re keeping someone around as a text buddy, someone else is closing the deal as her new sex partner by making specific plans.  It might be entertaining and easy to have an assortment of women to text and exchange photos with, but these women will eventually fade you out of the picture for someone they know in real life.
  • Be sincere and honest about what your ideal arrangement is right now.  Just because you’re wanting to keep things casual doesn’t mean you’re decreasing your chances for sexual opportunities with women.  There are plenty of women who are open to keeping things casual too!  Plenty.  It doesn’t make sense to allude to wanting a more committed relationship if you actually don’t- doing so only increases the odds of introducing drama I’m sure you’d rather avoid.  Women can absolutely relate to wanting to experience an array of people before settling into a committed relationship, and understand you may be in a stage of your life where you’re prioritizing other life goals above romantic relationships.  In short, aim for integrity when you engage with someone in pursuit of sex.  Establishing this mutual understanding up front will create a space where both of you can focus on what you’re actually there for- sexual pleasure.
  • Real talk: If you aren’t asking what you can do to help a woman achieve orgasm and/or paying close attention to figuring out what she enjoys (and spending more than a little time doing this) it’s safe to guess you’re coming up short in bed.  Which of course, is your choice.  Just consider that when a woman finally does come along that you actually care about pleasing (even if it’s years and countless women from now), you likely still won’t have much of a clue about how to get her off (especially if you’re a fan of male produced porn).  There’s a good chance you’ll pale in comparison to other guys she’s been with, which is not a good look if you want to become that person’s significant other/favorite sexual partner.  If that’s not enough motivation, consider this:  when a woman reaches full sexual attraction to a sex partner she is going to be much more agreeable and feel more confident about trying new things for the sake of her partner’s pleasure.  That sexual fantasy you’ve had since the 8th grade?  That could go down if you play your cards right. #Thankmelater

Women seeking sexual encounters with men:

Speak Up Clearly and Consistently To Avoid Confusion.  Taking a meek approach in communicating your sexual preferences is going to seriously set back your sexual pleasure (and possibly compromise your sexual safety). Remind yourself:  Men cannot read your mind (and your subtle non-verbals can go unnoticed) because men and women are culturally socialized to communicate in different styles.  Be direct with your words and your actions about what you like and what you don’t like. Think about it: when men engage sexually, most do a pretty good job of getting their sexual needs met.  Porn and sex in movies perpetuate the myth that men do exactly what women love during sex (and women are supposed love it, regardless of how ridiculous it is!)

Set The Pace:  Literally and Figuratively.  Figuring out a sexual pace that feels good between two people comes from familiarity and predictability, neither of which have been established when you’ve only recently met someone.  So in addition to communicating openly, take the time to find a pace that works for both of you. Try not to approach sex like it’s fast food eaten at 2 am after staying out all night- which is usually on a whim, followed by almost instant regret.  Take your time and do it right– these SOS Band song lyrics were a hit for a reason!

STOP FAKING IT IN BED.  Really.  Pretending that you enjoy things during sex that you don’t is synonymous with digging your own sexual grave.  Take one for the team, and stop sending guys the wrong message that what they are doing sexually is awesome when you know that it’s not.  Funny but true story:  A 25 year-old attractive Asian woman I’m coaching tells me “So I met this guy randomly, and after we talked and hung out for a while, we eventually decide to go back to his place where we end up having sex.  Right away he starts fingering me with way too much force, to the point where it’s actually hurting me and I’m going numb from it!  So I stop him and say ‘hey when you touch me like that it hurts’ and he looks at me and says a little defensively “ok well… some women like it like that.”  She deadpans, “Christina I had to break it to him… “Um NO.  NO ONE likes it like that!”  We both had a good laugh at her candor in the moment.  I could not have been more proud of her for speaking up for herself!

Stop filtering and dismissing guys so quickly- be optimistic about seeing if you can develop good sexual chemistry with guys who don’t fit your bill. These days, you can swipe right to meet guys using more filters than your favorite photo editing app offers- you can specify height, body type, education level, location, age, etc. One of the most common complaints I get from women is that they rarely feel attracted enough to guys to even see them a first or second time.  But who you think will be attracted to sexually may not be a good match in real life.  Scientists working with Match.com found that we are horrible at knowing what we want; the kind of partner people said they wanted often didn’t match up with what they were actually interested in long term.  What works well for predicting good first dates doesn’t tell us much about the long-term success of a couple let alone their sexual chemistry.  Social psychologist and researcher Robert B. Zajonc explains, “while we are initially attracted to people by their physical appearance and traits we can quickly recognize, the things that make us more attracted to someone are their deeper, more personal qualities, which come out only during sustained interactions” – the “mere exposure effect” is repeated exposure to a stimulus which tends to enhance one’s feelings toward it.

This last point applies to anyone and everyone seeking sexual or romantic connections of any and all kinds:

Do Not Let FOMO Take Over.  You’ve read about, you’ve experienced it, you’re sick of hearing about how Millennials are  responsible for amplifying this toxic trend in a digital era.  That said, I’ve seen far too many people spend endless amounts of time spinning their wheels, agonizing over not meeting/dating enough people they find interest in.  A billion and one first dates later, still…nothing.  Begin to rethink what this could mean…maybe this isn’t the strategy that is going unearth the person who gets you excited and holds your attention.  Switch it up, peel your eyes away from your phone, pull your earbuds out and take a look around you.  Make eye contact and smile, maybe even say hi to the person next to you- this could be your first moment together of many better ones to come.

 

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Dr. Christina Villarreal’s Focus on Women’s Sexual Health, Empowerment & Wellness

15 years ago, I completed my doctoral dissertation examining cultural and gender influences of sexual risk behavior among Latino women. I’ve enjoyed educating women on how to embrace their sexuality, overcome obstacles to safe sex practices, and empower themselves for a lifetime of sexual wellness. I’ve served as a Relationship Expert on social media websites like GuysAskGirls.com, and written a range of articles on dating and relationships, with media publications and interviews in popular media sites such as techcrunch.  This week I orchestrated what turned out to be an amazing educational workshop for nearly 40 women on Navigating Sex, Relationships, and Dating in San Francisco. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to do this important work. Thank you to all those that participated, there will be more to come!  In the coming weeks I will be recruiting a diverse group of men in various stages of their dating life and relationship experience- from single to married.  These men will form an expert panel for an open Q & A session for an audience of Bay Area women who’d like to better understand why guys do what they do!  I will facilitate an honest and respectful dialogue that will surely be insightful, informative and instrumental in improving dating and relationship experiences for all.

Here are a few candid snapshots from the event on May 27th, 2015, we had a great time!

Hosting my first workshop on Women's Sexual Health and Wellness
Hosting my first educational workshop on Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness

With Rebecca Alvarez of Bodyfeminina- she is a Sexual Wellness Expert and Women's Sexual Health researcher

With Dr. Lina Hannigan, a Clinical Health Psychologist practicing in the Bay Area, SF.
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Is Lightweight Stalking on Social Media a Relationship Killer? Stop in 3 Easy Steps.

How often do you keep tabs on the person you're dating online?
How often do you keep tabs on the person you’re dating online?

Have you ever wondered how much checking someone’s status updates/tweets/photo uploads is normal/harmless, and when does re-checking their online activity become problematic?  Most of us have caught ourselves clicking through someone’s social media activity because we have reason to be naturally curious  about them- maybe the person is someone we want to meet, or just started dating and want to know more about them.  Other times we might scroll through our partner’s online activity as a way to check their daily mood, as counterintuitive as that may sound (since you likely see them or at least communicate with them regularly in person).  Today’s prolific use of social media gives us an alternative glimpse into our partner’s emotional status and social exchanges that we may not otherwise pick up on.  Even if someone’s online persona is carefully constructed for public consumption, having access to their online activity gives us an opportunity to interpret the meaning of their coming and goings, even their level of intimacy with others.  If this person is an ex-romantic partner this may be all we have to go on- even if all we see is their profile picture and friend list, this information can still provide a rough approximation of their current situation. This dilemma recently became a topic of conversation in my coaching practice, where helping people improve their emotional intelligence is a common goal throughout the work that I do.  Victoria, a bright and accomplished 24 year-old woman shared with me that constantly checking her boyfriend’s social media activity and online communication with his ex is taking a hard toll on her mood and relationship functioning. Me: “Have you ever talked to your boyfriend about what you see on his social media sites?  That you’re concerned about who he’s interacting with online?” Her: “HELL NO! The last thing I want to do is come across as the person that I actually am- the type of person who stalks people online to see what they’re up to, and compare their successes to mine.” Checking people’s online activity, or ‘lightweight stalking‘ if you will, can run deep.  We start out taking a quick glimpse at our partner’s tweet/Instagram pic of the day, only to find their ex decided to comment suggestively.  It’s too easy to then check out our partner’s ex-boyfriend/girlfriend’s Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, etc (because dammit they have a public profile just begging to be explored).  So begins the comparisons.  Do they seem happier/sadder now? Does their taste in fashion/music/politics demonstrate that I’m a more tasteful/intelligent person?  Is he/she in better shape than me?  Our self-esteem may start to wane the more we compare ourselves to them.  We end up heading into an tailspin trying to interpret their ‘Vaguebooking‘ habit on Facebook.  We’re left wondering if they’re pining for their old relationship.  Do they want to rekindle things?  Will they/have they tried?  If trust hasn’t been well established in our relationship, we might become irrationally suspicious by mistrusting and/or questioning our partner for no substantial reason.  Suddenly we’re starting arguments that undermine the health of our relationship.

FML.

Dr. Tara C. Marshall, Ph.D., explores online post-breakup fixations in her research article Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth.  Results based on the responses of 464 participants revealed that one-half to two-thirds of people have made contact with an ex-romantic partner through Facebook, and that over half admit to having looked through an ex’s photos to find pictures of them with a new romantic partner.  Findings from this study suggest that keeping tabs on an ex through social media is associated with poorer emotional recovery and personal growth following a breakup. Therefore, avoiding exposure to ex-partners, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart.

Solution:  Put Yourself on a Stalking Diet

  1. Do not allow yourself to stalk during the time of day when you know you are the most emotionally vulnerable and/or have unlimited time to comb through the internet for new postings.  For many people this is late at night.  Give yourself an 8 pm stalking curfew!!!  Most likely after 8 pm, you’ll engage in other things that will bring your mood back to a normal, and you’ll be in a less anxious place before you sleep.
  2. If you know you’re not ready to quit cold turkey, put some “stalking hours” in place, like office hours, if you will.  You’re only allowed to check on those you stalk between 2-4 pm, for example.  That way if you find yourself curious about your ex at midnight (especially likely if you’ve been out drinking), you can rest assured you’ll have a chance to stalk to your heart’s content, just postponed a little.  Chances are, you won’t have that same aching (likely misguided) curiosity during the logical hours of the next afternoon.
  3. Delete the social media app(s) that you use the most during your sleuthing for one week.  This will allow you to see how much you actually miss compulsively scrolling through that particular social media site.  You might discover that the cost of missing out (FOMO) is not creating as much emotional damage as stalking does.
  • And if all else fails…
If all else fails…

Millennials tech twist on engagement, weddings and parenthood

While millennials are still getting married at much lower rates than previous generations, some are finally beginning to grow and up, entering the world of marital engagements, wedding planning, and parenthood. True to form, their choices reflect advancements that set them apart from Gen-Xers, who were the first to utilize technology to chronicle their love stories on websites like theknot.com, build wedding registries online, gift personalized CDs with digitally remastered music as wedding favors, show spliced video montages of the bride and groom’s childhood at wedding receptions, and research honeymoons on websites like tripadvisor.com. As a card carrying member of generation X, I can proudly say we thought we were so cutting edge! Our kids were the first to be born with smartphones and tablets in their hands, and we posted their baby pictures on our social media pages and texted them to their grandparents. But time nor technology stands still, and Gen-Y has begun to put their own tech twist on engagements, weddings and baby plans. As someone who works with a high volume of with millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have taken note of the following trends:

Their romantic relationships have an online life of their own. As the saying goes, no one really knows what happens behind closed doors, but in the personal lives of millennials, we can certainly take a look at their online activity to see what they’d like us to believe about their relationship status and history. The internet has become their forum of choice for chronicling romantic highs and lows, functioning as a means to gain public support, air grievances, compete for attention, and display markers of success (not to mention deleting away failures.) From public playlists on Spotify, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards and Facebook’s ‘Relationship Status’ updates, Gen-Y leaves little to the imagination when it comes to sharing their stories of romance.

They crowd source their decisions when it comes to navigating relationships. Millennials are used to solving problems fast, arriving at optimal solutions with the least resistance possible. Millennials have been groomed to work in competency-based teams, and this concept is frequently used for managing their personal lives too. They prefer to avoid conflict, and are more comfortable than previous generations relying on others to help them make decisions. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, a provider of online education, including optimizing team effectiveness, says a hierarchical, leader-oriented team was more appropriate for earlier generations: “Traditionally if you worked up the ranks for twenty years and all the employees were local then you could know all the functions of the workplace. Then you could lead by barking orders. But today everything moves too fast and the breadth of competency necessary to do something is too vast.” When faced with life-changing decisions about relationship commitment or endings, Gen-Y seeks the opinions of their team of friends, family and experts to help them navigate and solve problems. When problems are deemed too private to share, websites like popular sites like Whisper and Secret are put to use by millennials as a way to air their private thoughts, share their hidden behaviors and ask for advice completely anonymously, so there is no threat to their carefully constructed online image.

Their engagement stories, weddings and honeymoons reflect their brilliance and investment in personal branding. While previous generations aimed to establish their worth and reputation through self-improvement, author Dan Schawbel of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success points out that Gen-Y has discovered that in the dawn of the internet, admiration and success comes from self-packaging through a carefully concocted personal brand. From the days of Myspace to Tumblr, millennials have grown up managing their self image like celebrity publicists. Gen-Y has turned self-portraits into a way of life- ‘selfies’ have become one of the internet’s top forms of self-expression. Their overall online presence has been a way to uniquely distinguish themselves from everyone else, and they are highly invested in making their relationship milestones ideally memorable as part of their personal brand. Whether they capture and share these milestones via Snapchat’s Our Story, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or personal blogs, millennials are sure to control how the world sees their love stories unfold through brand management. One San Francisco Bay area millennial shared with me she got engaged via FaceTime, since her long-distance boyfriend was living in abroad and couldn’t wait to pop the question. To his credit, her (now fiance) also created an iMovie that he shared with her, depicting him staged in funny scenarios accompanied by a personalized musical score that specially captured their romantic history.

They’re comfortable resisting tradition, understanding that ‘following the rules’ doesn’t necessarily bring ‘happily ever after.’ Author Paul Hudson of Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation Y observes that millennials are far less likely than past generations to buy into the notion that marriage is the gateway to a future of stability and happiness. Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, describes the strong link between parental divorce and a reluctance to get married. “If your parents split up then most people are more likely to be quite skeptical about the value of marriage,” he explains. “So as there’s rising divorce rates, you can imagine how when the next generation appears, people will be more dubious about marriage.” Bobby Duffy, leading market researcher on generational analysis, says there are also far more financial pressures on millennials than previous generations. They have more educational debt in a less stable economic climate, and face an incredibly buoyant housing market. According to CNNMoney, twenty-somethings are transitioning into adult life at a more gradual pace, opting to cohabitate and co-parent without traditional marriage at a much higher rate than previous generations.

They anticipate their babies’ future in a world where technological identity matters. One website says it all:awesomebabyname.com, a new online tool that allows parents to choose a name for their child based on website domain availability. Yes people, this is happening. I heard it first a few months ago when a pregnant patient of mine found out she was having a girl, the first thing she and her cohabiting boyfriend/expecting father-to-be did was buy website domains and establish email accounts in her name. Of course, now there’s an app for that! “It’s important to give your children a fighting chance of having good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the 21st century,” says Finnbar Taylor, who created this website together with Karen X. Cheng. “We use search engines all day long to answer our questions and find things, including people. Imagine being called John Smith and trying to get a ranking on Google search. It’s important to give your child a unique name so that people, like potential employers, will be able to find them easily in the future.”

Granted, millennials are still in their 20’s, a time when it’s still developmentally common to be preoccupied with self-image, and an idealized future that looks different than previous generations. The question is, as Gen-Y ages, which of these trends, if any, will change?

 

Cohabitation: a generational trend that’s here to stay, but does it work?

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More and more people are struggling to make their romantic relationship work while cohabiting.  Like many desirable urban areas, Bay Area rent prices continue to soar with no end in sight.  In spite of having well-paying jobs, many young adults are weighed down with hefty student loans, and have learned to enjoy an expensive lifestyle where smartphone bills, an expectation of recreational travel, eating out, and ‘networking over drinks’ are the norm.  Many couples start moving in together in their mid-twenties, reasoning “it’s too early to get married, I need the freedom to make life decisions and consider what’s best for me before settling down” or “we were staying at each other’s places all the time anyway, it made sense to save money on rent and get a place together- living together will give us a chance to see if our relationship will work before making bigger decisions about engagement or marriage.”  Cohabitation among young adults appears to be here to stay, but does it work?

Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution, the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing.  In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.  Premarital cohabitation allows couples to experience a “trial run” before making the real commitment of marriage.  Following this logic, those who cohabit before marriage are more prepared for marriage having already lived together, and reducing their risk of divorce.  Research studies have shown however that premarital cohabitation should be considered with caution if marriage is the desired outcome, particularly for serial cohabiters.  “People who live with multiple partners have higher divorce rates. If you’ve only lived with the person you are going to marry, you have no greater chance of getting divorced than a couple who hasn’t lived together” says Sharon Sassler, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University who has extensively studied cohabiters.

Couples who opt to live together before marriage, engagement or otherwise clearcut commitment, tend to be less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.  Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabiters were less conventional about marriage, and therefore more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. 

What contributes to the cohabitation effect? 

Relationship inertia.  Some couples who would not (and likely should not) have gotten married do so because they were already living together. The threat of having to separate complicated living arrangements and shared belongings may be enough to keep some couples together.  Some couples may find themselves on a path toward marriage because it seems more palatable than the alternative.

Conflicting agendas.  Researchers discovered that in heterosexual relationships women were more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men were more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone further commitment.  This gender asymmetry was associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progressed to marriage.  There is a dearth of information on same-sex couples who choose to cohabit; their circumstances should be distinguished from heterosexual couples since same-sex relationships continue to be impacted by discriminatory laws prohibiting same-sex marriage in the United States.

Sunk costs and cognitive dissonance.  How do these concepts apply?  The more time and energy people invest into a relationship the harder it becomes to end the relationship, even if cutting their losses will save them more heartache in the future.  Further, people tend to strive for consistency between their feelings, behaviors and circumstances.  Even if there are plain signs a relationship is no longer rewarding or even functional, living together can lead people to adjust their views so that their current living arrangements continue to ‘make sense’.  

Decreased opportunity to meet other (potentially better suited) partners.  Couples who live together are likely spending more time together, narrowing their exposure to other people who frankly might be a better match, romantically.  Some people end up investing years of their 20’s and 30’s into relationships that might have lasted only months had they not been living together.  

 

One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that relationship standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

Young adults in the Bay Area illuminate the dilemma of cohabitation:

“It’s true, I make about 30 thousand dollars more annually than my girlfriend does. But I don’t think I’d be ready to pay more of our bills than she does, unless we were married…but we’re not, we’re living together.”  James, age 29

“My [live-in] boyfriend doesn’t like that I go out and stay out so late drinking with my friends.  It’s like he expects me to stay in, just because he’s tired from working all the time.  Why shouldn’t I go out and have fun with my friends? I think once I’m actually married to him things will be different, I’ll want to do different things when I’m married. I’ll be thinking about having kids, and my friends will be married too.”  Audrey, age 27

“Everything is going really well with my girlfriend, we’ve been living together for almost a year now.  Except she has made it very clear she wants to move back East to be close to her family once she’s married and ready to have kids. Her mind is made up. But my career in tech is growing here, the company I founded is based here in Silicon Valley and my family is here too.  So what should I do doc?  Enjoy our relationship for now since we’re so young? Or break it off now rather than avoid the inevitable?”  Mark, age 26

What is the impact of the cohabitation effect on one’s health and wellness?  Dr. Lloyd Stockey, a board certified primary care physician at Kaiser Hospital’s flagship medical center in Oakland, California weighs in on the topic. “[Cohabitation] is like a lease or practicing to see if you really want to commit. Unfortunately, it sets the bar low. There’s no real commitment with living together. It’s an opt out clause, and it’s never equal. It’s a roommate situation after 2 years.  Everyone ‘goes for self’ when cohabiting. Career, freedom, and personal success comes before commitment and family. The younger generation thinks it’s commonplace to upgrade partners, and is satisfied being single parents.  The landscape has changed. There’s blurring in gender roles, household leaders, finances, and expectations. Playing house is exactly what it is. It’s monopoly money. Looks good on paper and everyone is playing, but not worth anything when the game is over.  Codependency and living arrangements cause a majority of adjustment disorders and depression in family medicine. It’s messy in a lot of ways. It’s just like Facebook says–single, married, or it’s complicated.”

The bottom line: cohabitation is here to stay, and there are things young adults can do to protect their relationships from the cohabitation effect. Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now advises – it’s important to discuss each person’s motivation and commitment level before opting to move in together, and view it as an intentional step toward, rather than a convenient test for marriage or partnership. It also makes sense to anticipate and regularly evaluate constraints that may keep people from leaving the relationship.  Couples who communicate openly and regularly will likely reduce ambiguity about their partner’s commitment, and have realistic expectations about the future of their relationship.  Sassler says the takeaway from her research at Cornell is that couples need to talk about situations such as the possibility of pregnancy, whether they’ll split household expenses evenly, and general expectations about gender roles. 

Understanding the role of cohabitation in the success and failure of relationships has far-reaching implications for generations to come.  Recent estimates suggest that about 33% of all children of unwed parents are born to parents in a heterosexual cohabiting relationship, and more than 50% of all children born in the United States will live in a house headed by at least one unwed parent.  Those who contemplate cohabiting can benefit from educating themselves about the benefits and risks, and utilize resources on how to make a smooth and successful transition to cohabitation (couples workshops, relationship books, working with a family/couples therapist).  Whether or not people subscribe to traditional societal expectations for marriage, choose to cohabit or not, my aim for the individuals in my psychotherapy practice is that they become better equipped at participating in happy, functional and rewarding romantic relationships.