Women see living together as a steppingstone to marriage, but men usually see it as a test-drive, relationship experts say.
By KRISTEN GERENCHER
SAN FRANCISCO -- Relationships are always risky, but when it comes to living together, women are especially likely to find themselves in financial and emotional jeopardy.
Cohabiting may seem like a logical, money-saving choice if you're in love, spending many nights together and still paying for two separate abodes. But women can find themselves in a compromising position if they're not careful, relationship and financial experts say.
Shacking up makes sense for people who are mutually reluctant to commit, don't have or want kids and don't see their attitudes changing. It's also preferable for older women who stand to lose Social Security or health benefits if they wed, or who want to make sure their inheritance goes to their own children.
But younger women with marriage on their minds often move in with men who see living together as a test-drive. Many women fail to ask the hard questions before unpacking their bags and enmeshing their finances in anticipation of future nuptials, said Stacy Whitman, co-author of "Shacking Up: The Smart Girl's Guide to Living in Sin Without Getting Burned."
"Women are more likely to expect marriage to be the end result," Whitman said. "Unfortunately, they don't always talk about it before they move in together, which can lead to a lot of misunderstanding and heartbreak in the end."
Those who want to save money are wiser to take a roommate or move back with mom and dad than to play house with a boyfriend, said Kate Wachs, a Chicago psychologist and author of "Relationships for Dummies."
"Living together is not the answer," Wachs said. "If you break up and it's not amicable, it's a real mess."
The longer a couple lives together, the more likely they are to make big purchases, open joint accounts and share each other's debt burdens, which can leave the lower earner -- often the woman -- holding the bag if they split.
Even if co-owned furniture and pets aren't involved, or if the couple sticks to a predetermined contract upon breaking up, someone typically has to shell out to relocate, say Marlin S. Potash, a New York psychologist.
"It's important to consult with an attorney or your financial adviser about the impact ahead of time and people often don't because ... they have stars in their eyes," Potash said.
Women need to make sure they're not primarily motivated by having their bills covered by a higher-earning mate, and at the same time they need to protect their own bank accounts from being pilfered, said Steven Sacks, author of "The Mate Map: The Right Tool for Choosing the Right Mate" and a cohabitation proponent.
"There could be more of a risk if a guy steals money," Sacks said. "You never hear stories of the reverse."
Men's motives for living together tend to vary significantly whether spoken or unspoken, said Mary Spio, editor of One2One Living, a singles lifestyle magazine.
"Women come in with the idea that cohabiting is a gateway to marriage whereas men see it as a chance to improve their sex life and enjoy all the benefits of marriage without being married," Spio said.
To be sure, much of the taboo surrounding "living in sin" is gone as more people -- many shell-shocked by their own parents' divorces -- view cohabiting as a way to avoid a draining legal split.
Sixty-four percent of more than 400 One2One Living readers said they'd prefer to shack up before walking down the aisle -- but their reasons for doing so were different, with more men preferring to "kick the tires" while women hoped for marriage, Spio said.
The irony is that shacking up leads to less relationship stability, lower odds for marriage and more likelihood of divorce, Spio said. "Even when there's pregnancy involved, it's not a determining factor whether it ends in marriage," she said.
Unless you're engaged and living together as a stop-gap before the wedding, living together doesn't pay off, Potash said.
Couples rarely want the same thing at the same time, creating an imbalance of power among unwed couples that often works to women's disadvantage, Potash said.
"One person's testing with the possibility of having one foot out the door and the other person is being tested," Potash said. "The one being tested is slightly more vulnerable and apt to get hurt financially, emotionally and otherwise."
Young women have to guard against wasting their time with a man who never outgrows commitment phobia, Wachs said.
"Women just have to be more practical," she said. "If your relationship goal is you want to get married, especially if you want to get married with kids, you only have so much time."