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A new mathematics of love: the cost of rent

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but if you're paying rent in New York, you might be willing to gamble that the opposite is true, too.

I've been living in Brooklyn for the spring and early summer - subletting a room in my best-friend-from-way-back's apartment - and have been asked a few times what the dating scene is like.

Everyone always talks about the single ladies effect - how the surplus of women in the city weighs romance in favour of men. Not as much is said, though, about the influence of real estate on matters of the heart. It's a factor that comes into play in any big city, but most extremely in this one.

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Jacob and I live on top of each other - literally, as my room hangs above the kitchen - so I've overheard this urban-couple dilemma play out between him and his boyfriend.

Jacob would like to move in together when his lease is up at the end of summer. That way, he reasons, he won't have to live with a Craigslist surprise; the two of them can pay less for a nicer space; and, you know, they happen to like each other.

The tricky part of that equation is how the pressure of the first two things affects one's perception of the last, presumably also the most important.

According to Galena Rhoades, who has been studying co-habitation and marriage at the University of Denver for the past decade, there are good reasons to hold off. "Our research shows that living together prior to engagement is associated with poor outcomes in marriage, lower satisfaction in the relationship, and a higher rate of divorce," Dr. Rhoades said.

The mathematics of the situation involve what she calls "restraints" and "dedication." If you move in together, there's a higher likelihood that you'll end up co-signing a lease, buying a pet, or getting pregnant. These are the restraints, external reasons that will keep two people together even if it turns out they don't score very high on the dedication portion, defined by Dr. Rhoades as "wanting to be in the relationship."

Like most of my living-in-sin generation, I always thought that sharing an apartment was a good way to test-run domestic matrimony. However, Dr. Rhoades suggests another, glass-half-empty view: "If you want to test your relationship, it probably means something is not right."

Carol, a New York writer friend in her mid-thirties, agreed. "What are you really going to get that you're not getting spending almost every day together? Is it like, 'I've got to know what you do with the toothpaste tube!'"

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Fifteen years ago, Carol moved in with her boyfriend of three months. His untended alcoholism, which she had been completely unaware of, eventually led to a disastrous end. Since that first train wreck, Carol has had the philosophy that rather than moving in together, the best test of a relationship is forcing oneself - or one's suitor - to navigate through the crush of the city for each reunion.

"I've heard people in Brooklyn say they won't date anyone in Manhattan, because the F train on a Sunday can be a real drag," Carol explained. "New York turns you into a pragmatic person, which is a bad thing to apply to a romantic relationship. I think you can tell a lot about someone's feelings by the inconvenience that they're willing to endure."

Another New York story, from a guy who frequents the same café as myself, told of a happier ending. "I don't know if my wife and I would be married now if our leases didn't both come up at the same time," he said. They'd only been dating a year when they discovered they would both be free agents in September. "What if her lease ended in April? The logistical nightmare could have proved too much."

With happenstance playing such a great part in the September Couple's fate, it's hard not to compare the situation to the arranged marriages of yore, where commitment came without knowing if the attendant dedication would come around.

My roomie Jacob was willing to take that same chance. In eleventh-hour negotiations, he leaned on his advanced experience over his boyfriend, who is a decade younger. Jacob's previous relationship lasted five years and they only moved in together for the last year, during which they unravelled.

"This time, I'd like to enjoy living together while things are good," he told his boyfriend.

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"I agree things are good, but if we rush into it when we're not ready, it might make us feel like the only alternative is to break up," the boyfriend replied. "And I don't want to break up."

Far too mature for his age, the boyfriend won out.

The next question, of course - relevant only since gay marriage in the Empire State became legal two weeks ago - is whether this couple will wait to get engaged before bringing on the restraints.

Only time on the F train will tell.

Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Micah Toub writes about relationships for the Life section. He is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming-of-age as the Son of Two Shrinks and a National Magazine Award winner. For more info, visit his Related content . More

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