(WNS)--Amidst all the “home and garden” television programs these days, there’s a popular one where couples tour several homes then decide at the end of the show which one to purchase. What’s interesting about this show (aside from the shocking amount of money some people will pay for a house) is that more and more of the featured couples who are buying a house together aren’t married.

Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise. More couples than ever before are living together outside of marriage and unmarried couples are the second fastest growing segment of home buyers in America. But even though the idea of buying a home together may make some financial sense, entering such a massive financial contract with someone you are romantically involved with, but not committed to in marriage, sure sounds like trouble.

Something is amiss when you are more willing to commit to hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage debt with someone before you are willing to commit to them in marriage.

What happens if the financial commitment is disproportionately greater than the level of commitment in the relationship, or if the romance starts to fade?

Buying a house can be an exciting experience, filled with emotion and anticipation. It can even create an illusion of intimacy. But all of the emotion of buying a home can distract from the more important work of cementing the relationship first.

Once you have become intertwined both relationally and then financially it becomes much more difficult to make objective and subjective assessments of the relationship and where it is headed. The relationship has been sealed by more than just an emotional connection; it’s committed contractually and financially too.

Communication also becomes a problem. Expressing misgivings about a relationship sealed with a deed can be much more difficult than doing so when each person can return home to their separate dwellings.

Freedom to adjust a relationship, including taking time apart or breaking up completely, becomes much more difficult too. As you can imagine, the pressure on someone to remain in a wrong relationship is much greater when they share a mortgage payment with the other person.

In effect, becoming financially obligated to each other in such a big way takes leverage away from the person who may want more commitment from the other person. His or her power to say, “I need you to do this in our relationship before we move forward” is gone because the issue of mutual obligation has already been settled. Suppose one person wants to improve their communication by attending relationship training? Or that person wants to get married? If the other doesn’t agree, what happens then? Getting out of the relationship will require a lot more than just saying goodbye and walking away. It will be complex and possibly expensive.

Meanwhile, the other person who is less inclined to invest in the relationship has more leverage. After all, what incentive is there for him or her to agree to more, when their partner can’t just walk away? The contract has been signed.

Contrary to popular belief, living together before marriage does not improve the chances of a successful marriage. Research has found that couples who cohabit before getting married are more likely to divorce. One of the reasons unmarried cohabitation is harmful to future marriage is because of what I call an “escape route” mentality – if the relationship isn’t working, they can walk out. Unfortunately, this mindset can be carried over into the marriage. Instead of doing whatever is necessary to save the marriage when things get tough, they abandon it.

Purposeful dating and engagement, while living separately, provides the time to evaluate each other and to commit to developing the various parts of the relationship. Doing so apart from financial ties like a mortgage means that if you do get married, it is based on a strong relationship – not economic convenience. 

A couple’s biggest investment should be in the health of the relationship first and then the marriage if it gets that far. Otherwise, someone may experience a whole new kind of buyer’s remorse. 

Randy Hicks is the president of the Georgia Family Council, a non-profit research and education organization committed to fostering conditions in which individuals, families and communities thrive.

(c) 2011 WORLD News Services.