Cohabiting Can Ruin Your Military Relationship

by Karina Gafford

A recent article on The Daily Beast suggested a new type of registry. In addition to the traditional wedding registry and baby registry, they proposed that stores such as Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma could add the option of a cohabitation registry to their celebratory gift lists. Has cohabitation really surpassed the boundaries of tradition and aspired to a place of celebration, or is The Daily Beast’s humorous suggestion still too far off the mark?  
 
Since I know that my grandmother has only recently figured out how to use the internet, I know that she’s not likely to read this, so I’ll confess. For almost a year before we were married, my husband of seven years and I [dramatic pause] lived in sin, shacked up, cohabited, whatever you want to call it. We hadn’t quite planned to cohabitate, but timing between his return from a deployment and the end of my college apartment lease coincided tidily with his intent on using his VA loan to purchase his first home and my need to relocate my college apartment furniture.
 
Though my grandmother would be a little bit scandalized, we were not alone in this post-college, pre-marriage living situation. In fact, cohabiting seems to be the new norm, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good thing for servicemembers and their significant others.
 
Good statistics on military couples who live together don’t currently exist, but everyone knows at least one couple who does, and everyone has opinions about whether their cohabiting is a good idea or not. Let’s take a look at some of the implications of military cohabitation, and what it may mean for you as either a renter or a landlord renting to unmarried military couples.
 
Is Everyone Really Cohabitating?
In the 1970s, the U.S. Census reported that around a half-million U.S. households were cohabiting. That number soared to over 1.5 million couples within a decade. Another decade on, and almost 3 million couples cohabited. That number rose yet again. Over 4 million households cohabited by the late 1990s. Today, 48 percent of all women aged 15-44 years old cohabit, which is up from just 34 percent of women in 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a part of the Centers for Disease Control. That doesn’t mean everyone is cohabiting, but the number is rising substantially enough to suggest that the nuclear family may be shifting.
 
Is Cohabitation a Long-Term Condition?   
The NCHS conducted a study over three years in which they followed over 12,000 women. They found that 40 percent of cohabiting relationships turned into marriage, 32 percent remained in a cohabiting relationship, and 27 percent of those relationships broke up. Pam Smock, director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, suggested that cohabitation may actually help to keep rising divorce rates at bay, as she explained that by living together, cohabitation is "…weeding out couples who would have been more likely to get divorced had they not lived together and realized they weren’t compatible."
 
So, What’s the Big Deal with Cohabitation?
While generally entered into for convenience, a fear of commitment, an intent to "test drive" a marriage, or a shunning of traditional models of living, cohabitation doesn’t come without a few problems. In some states such as Texas, cohabitation is the only option for same-sex couples; however, for those who do have the option to cohabit, there are quite a few things to consider when cohabiting.
 
One damning piece of research from the University of Chicago shows that those inside of cohabiting relationships experience more abuse, both physical and verbal, than their married counterparts. Further, these relationships have a higher rate of infidelity than marriages. Given that the NCHS reported than twenty percent of women in a cohabiting relationship become pregnant within the first year of living together, the research from Chicago is troublesome.
 
Cohabitation is a Bigger Deal for Service Members
There isn’t much incentive for service members to cohabit; in fact, BAH rates increase with marriage, and so while a few hundred dollars a month shouldn’t incentivize marriage, it definitely doesn’t de-incentivize it. If the significant other is shying from marriage, there are two major problems to consider:
 
1.     Financial considerations
2.     Increased dependency
 
The latter, increased dependency seems counter-intuitive. By marrying a service member, you technically become a "dependent" (though I have yet to encounter a military spouse that I would define as dependent on anyone!). However, by not marrying the service member, you are more dependent on him for access to services that play a major role in his life. You can’t access the commissary, the Exchange, or social events on base without being escorted.
 
The former, financial considerations, extends beyond simply considering how to split the bills without joint accounts. To begin with, an unmarried couple cannot live on base outside of certain extenuating circumstances that would have the non-service member defined as a caregiver for the service member’s children.
As a result, unmarried military couples typically live off-base. As adults, both individuals are listed on any rental lease. If the service member receives orders either in excess of 90 days for a deployment or to PCS, the significant other is still financially obligated to the lease. The military clause under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act that permits breaking a lease for orders does not cover unmarried partners. The only way that the significant other can escape the financial obligations of the lease is by meeting one of the following conditions:
 
  • They are a "dependent" in that the "service member provided more than one-half of the support during the 180 days preceding an application for relief under the Act." If the significant other earns his or her own income, then it is unlikely that they will meet this definition.
  • The landlord takes pity on the couple and releases both from the financial obligation so that the significant other can do what many spouses do in such a situation—go home for the duration of a deployment or PCS with their partner. 
Though it may sound extremely cynical, the smart approach to cohabitation is to approach the situation as if you were going to live with your partner as a roommate. That means delineating how bills and responsibilities will be split from the onset of moving in together. In essence, you establish the cohabitation set-up as if you were planning to separate one day.

Again, planning to separate while planning to live together sounds counter-intuitive. However, in the case of a marriage, an obligation to one another—financial or otherwise—is understood, but cohabiting only creates the illusion of a commitment. There are no religious or legal ties between the two people. Given 1) the high rates for pregnancy in the first year of living together, 2) the rates for ending the relationship, and 3) the almost certainty that the service member in the relationship will relocate (thank you, Uncle Sam), establishing a written contract for cohabitation that firmly establishes the obligations and responsibilities of both parties may present a good option for unmarried military couples. If you find yourself in this situation, consider talking to JAG about a "living together contract."
 
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