Marriage vs. Cohabitation

Would you buy a pair of shoes before trying them on or a car without a test drive? If your answer is no, then why would you get married to another person without first living together? So goes the cultural logic. In a 2001 nationwide survey almost 50% of those in their 20’s agreed with the statement: “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.”

And yet the hard data is showing the cultural logic is full of faulty reasoning and flawed thinking.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote an article that appeared in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times called “The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage.” In the article she cites studies that indicate that couples who live together before marriage are less satisfied with their marriages and more likely to divorce than those who don’t.

In an August 2005 cover story in Psychology Today Nancy Wartik says that the research shows that “Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment.”

These negative outcomes, commonly known as the cohabitation effect, are explained in two different ways.

1. People who cohabit have less traditional views of marriage and therefore are more open to divorce.

2. “Inertia Hypothesis.” Wartik says that this theory suggests “that many of us slide into marriage without every making an explicit decision to commit. We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage seems to be inevitable.”

In the Times Jay tells the story of Jennifer who lived with her boyfriend for four years and then was married for less than year before seeking a divorce. In the context of a counseling relationship Jennifer was trying to answer the question, “How did this happen?”

“We were sleeping over at each other’s place all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”

The author goes on to describe Jennifer’s answer as “sliding, not deciding.”

“Moving from sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

How Should Christians Think About This New Data?
1. When sex is removed from the context of marriage, one of the unseen implications is that the importance of marriage is minimized. This has a negative effect on people’s lives leading to greater unhappiness.

2. In an article in The Christian Post Albert Mohler points to a quote by Wartik in which she says that people “have different standards for living partners than for life partners.” The biblical view, of course, is that that our living partner should be our life partner. No one should be surprised that separating those two roles leads to more unhappy relationships and even divorces.

3. It should increase our confidence in the Bible. For decades now the Bible’s view of sex and marriage has been ridiculed as hopelessly outdated. But here is sociological research confirming what the Bible has told us for centuries.

4. Jay concludes her article with a line by an old mentor of hers: “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one.” Let’s put the emphasis back on becoming the right person rather than finding the right person.

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