#RoofBreakup: What We Learned From the Lovers Whose Tiff Went Viral

First, beware the innocuous-looking dude in the corner who's live-tweeting. More importantly, moving in together isn't always just moving in together

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A couple who went to the roof of their apartment building for some privacy to air their differences ended up in a world publicity instead after a guy up there decided to share the details of their conflict via Twitter.

But all is not lost. The pair provides a handy snapshot of significant marital and cohabitation trends of the moment. Usually, people are too polite to observe a deep anthropological closeup of a male and female thrashing out the hopes and fears that most human beings share as they search for a mate. That makes this detailed report all the more grimly fascinating — and potentially educational. So perhaps Kyle Ayers, a Brooklyn-based writer and comedian, can be forgiven for his ungentlemanly behavior in live-tweeting the fight of a couple he witnessed when he was hanging out on his roof over the weekend, with the hashtag #roofbreakup. Or for stringing the tweets together on the Storify website later.

The gist of the fight seemed to be over the species of relationship that the two young things, one of whose names appears to be Rachel, are in. Is it one of those couplings that leads to a future home, a marriage and a possible family? — “‘I’m not looking for marriage, just what’s right below marriage’ -girl.” Or is it one of those way-station relationships that people hang about in for a while, before heading in the direction they really intend to go? — “‘I just sometimes want to hang out with my friends and my not-you friends’ -guy.”

(MORE: The Strange Economics of Cohabitation)

From the Twitter version of the conversation — which if it is faked, is very authentically faked — the guy comes off as the less sympathetic party. He tells Rachel at one point to “stop shivering.” He makes desperate-sounding requests: “Just tell me what you want but don’t make it something f—ing gay.” He gets defensive and resorts to childish retorts: “You think I’m immature? Calling people immature is immature!” He wants to change the subject to whether or not they’re going to get pizza. He is upset with Rachel’s roommates, by whom he feels judged. Meanwhile, Rachel is suspicious of one of the guy’s co-workers who keeps texting him.

But the white-hot coal at the center of this flare-up is really whether or not the antishivering guy and Rachel should move in together. The rest of their complaints are just sideshows of frustration. And from what studies of marital trends suggest, the guy is probably right to hesitate. “Do you see yourself living with me within a year?” the girl asks. “I can’t think in terms of like, time and s—,” the guy replies. She tries again: “Are we going to live together?” And he answers: “Yeah but what is, like, living together? Like what’s an apartment mean? You know what I’m saying?”

The guy’s not exactly Ezra Pound, but he understands the rub: What does it mean? Cohabitation rates in the U.S. are growing rapidly. Nearly a quarter (23%) of all current unions among women ages 19 to 44 are unmarried couples living together, which is more than double what it was 23 years ago. In one year, between 2009 and 2010, there was a 13% increase in the number of unmarried couples living together. While many couples who move in together go on to get married, most statistically do not. That doesn’t mean they’re not happy, since permanent cohabitation is becoming more widespread. But more than a quarter of couples who moved in with each other dissolved altogether within three years, a recent study found.

(MORE: Is Fear of Divorce Keeping People From Getting Married?)

Whether or not a cohabiting couple stays together seems to have quite a lot to do with their reasons for moving in. For those who are having the hard conversations — like Rachel and her guy, but hopefully with a little less evasiveness — or even getting engaged before taking on the shared letterbox, the success rate is quite high. Most of them go on to get married and they don’t get divorced any more often than people who didn’t live together, research suggests.

Those who move in together for economic reasons or for lack of a better place to stay, or because they do not like their partner’s roomies, or maybe because it seems easier than arguing in front of some random dude on a rooftop in the Northeast, do not fare so well. A smaller percentage of them marry and a smaller percentage of those marriages last. And alas, the economy plays a big role here: historically, the biggest growth in cohabitation has been among folks with the least education. The guy is saving them both a world of pain in owning up, sort of, to his ambivalence.

Since it seems the world all now know Rachel and her man’s inner secrets, perhaps the world can offer them one piece of advice: practice safe sex. The percentage of couples who make it after moving in together and then have a kid before sorting out what “an apartment means” is very, very low.