She had been with her boyfriend two years. They got along great. They talked about the future. In their 20s, they had no specific plans, but figured that they would marry someday.
She had never lived with a guy, but moving in together seemed like the next step in their relationship. As she put it in a letter to a relationship advice columnist, "I can’t imagine not living with somebody before marrying them, because in my mind it makes sense that you need to be compatible, and living together seems like the way to really get to know whether you can make it work."
But she hesitated when she discovered that couples who live together before marriage—cohabitors—are more likely to break up. She summed up her dilemma to the columnist: "I am so happy right now. … It seems like the perfect time, but I can’t help being worried in the back of my mind."*
For the increasing number of young, unwed couples who live together, there is good cause to worry. Although an expanding body of evidence shows that “shacking up” damages individuals, relationships and communities, acceptance of cohabitation is growing, even among young Christians.
Christians used to refer to cohabitation as “living in sin” and Church teaching has always disapproved the practice. But now, many American Christians in their 20s and 30s consider cohabitation morally acceptable. Young couples believe they can better gauge their prospects for long-term success by experiencing intimate life together before they exchange vows, building their relationships free from the burdens of marriage and parenthood.
As it turns out, cohabitation actually weakens relationships and promotes divorce. Cohabitors break up at a rate much higher (up to five times higher) than married couples. When their relationships unravel, cohabitors experience all the emotional turmoil and much of the economic fallout of a divorce. And, while transitioning from cohabitation to marriage stabilizes some relationships, studies show higher divorce rates for those who live together first.
So why doesn’t cohabitation deliver on its promise to better prepare couples for marriage? Research has found that unwed couples who choose to live together have less reverence for the institution of marriage and less confidence that it will last. Lower expectations weaken a couple’s resolve to stay together, even after they make the transition from cohabitation to marriage.
Research also shows that the high rate at which cohabitors break up reinforces the notion that intimate relationships are fragile and fleeting. Those who have already experienced the collapse of an intimate cohabiting relationship generally have less hope that their marriages will last and more quickly accept divorce as a way to address marital turmoil.
Perhaps relevant as well is a couple’s understanding of the link between commitment and intimacy. For those who marry first, the decision to give lifelong care and love to one’s partner comes before the pleasures of married life, including sexual intimacy. The couple promises, in effect, not to seek the gratification of their strongest desires from one another until they commit to a life of mutual service and faithfulness.
Postponing intimate life becomes a way for the couple to express their devotion to one another. From the outset, commitment to the well-being of one’s partner is given priority over personal satisfaction. The couple who marries first understands that devotion does not stem from the joys of intimate living, but serves as the foundation for those joys.
The couple who lives together before marriage proceeds from opposite direction. For them, the pleasures of intimate life are not a reward for devotion but serve, supposedly, as the basis for commitment. They measure their “compatibility” and, if satisfied, base their commitment to one another on the pleasure they extract from the cohabitation arrangement. Their courtship focuses not on learning commitment, but rather on critiquing and evaluating their union and their partners, measuring the costs and benefits of the relationship.
For the couple who marries first, courtship is a test of their commitments. For the cohabiting couple, courtship is an experiment in compatibility. Whereas the couple who married first trusted that commitment would lead to the pleasures of intimate life, the cohabiting couple has wagered that indulging those pleasures will give rise to commitment.
What happens when these couples marry? It is impossible, of course, to maintain the soaring emotional experiences of courtship forever. Marriages inevitably encounter difficulty—desire fades, doubts arise, financial stress causes arguments, the duties of parenthood intrude and so on.
The cohabitors believed that arguments or doubts were clues for evaluating their relationship, and that the purpose of the relationship was to determine whether they could live together happily. Bringing these views into their marriage, they will tend to see difficulties as indicators that they should not be together. They might second-guess the findings of their courtship experiment. They might ultimately conclude that they are not, in fact, compatible.
On the other hand, the couple who married first is more likely, in the midst of marital strife, to return to the roots of their devotion, which never depended on personal pleasure or the demands of compatibility. If intimacy is disrupted or passion wanes, they call on their courtship experience, when they delayed intimacy while their devotion developed. They might even view difficulties in marriage as opportunities for personal growth and the expansion of their commitments.
It may be, then, that the attitudes and practices cohabitors adopt while forming intimate relationships explain why the experience of cohabitation does not lead to the long-term success realized by a model of faith, patience and mutual trust. The failure of cohabitation may have nothing to do with compatibility. Perhaps cohabitors break up more for the simple reason that they never really form or nurture commitments to stay together in the first place.
* "Reality Check," Flagpole Magazine, July 28, 2010, p. 23 (Athens, Ga.). Available at Flagpole.com.
Rob McNiff lives with his family in Winterville, GA.