Column entry: Challenging Cohabitation, a Popular Pathway to Marriage
Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.
Challenging Cohabitation, a Popular Pathway to Marriage
“We want to spend more time together.”
“We want to test our compatibility.”
“It just makes financial sense to live together.”
Sound familiar? These are common reasons couples give for “living together” or what researchers call cohabitation. In the 90s cohabitation was rare, but it has become the norm. Researchers Sassler and Litcher report that nearly 75% of 30-year-olds say that they have cohabitated before marriage, and that cohabitation is now the most common pathway to marriage. Given its prevalence, cohabitation merits a conversation, don’t you think? So, let’s talk about it.
First, we might ask why is cohabitation so popular? A study published in the Journal of Family Issues found that both men and women agree that cohabitation is a good, pragmatic solution for testing compatibility, sharing costs, and spending more time together. They did see it differently, though. The men, more than the women, said that cohabitation is a good way to “test drive” the relationship. Women expressed that “love” was the reason they decided to cohabit three times more than men, while men nominated “sex” as their motivation four times more frequently than women. A female participant in the study explains:
Most girls want to have the connection with the guy and know that it’s a relationship. ‘Cause women, their number one thing in life is to have good relationships with people. That is … the main thing that they strive for. Guys, the thing that they strive for is sex, so it’s kind of a tradeoff.
So, it’s a win-win, right? Men get more sex and women get a more stable relationship, plus it saves money for everyone and declutters already crowded schedules.
How can you argue with that? Absent any compelling principle or conviction, cohabitation seems like a logical choice. Is cohabitation ok for Christian couples? Why would romantic couples today decide against living together?
Here is some food for thought.
Sliding versus Deciding
On the practical side, studies have consistently found that divorce is somewhat higher for cohabiting couples. It is counterintuitive, ironic even. Many couples want to assess their compatibility, not just on dates but in the day-to-day. But without a commitment to one another that comes before the test, many don’t pass it. To really have a great shot at lifelong love in a happy marriage, cohabitation works against people who aren’t committed beforehand.
The data shows that being engaged or married before living together results in a lower rate of divorce than when couples cohabit without that kind of commitment. Researchers Scott Stanley and Galena Rhodes propose that many couples are “sliding” into marriage rather than “deciding” to marry. They say that people are subject to a type of relational inertia, which pushes them into cohabitation and eventually into marriage. It’s usually more convenient and practical to continue a relationship than to end it.
Here are the primary arguments for how couples “slide” into marriage:
- There are two types of commitment.
- Dedication commitment is an intentional “we-ness” in the relationship and demonstrated by a willingness to sacrifice for one’s partner. An example of dedication might be an engagement proposal.
- Constraint commitment is based on forces that increase the cost of leaving. Finding a new place to live, for example, increases the costs of breaking off a cohabiting relationship and constrains the couple to make things work out.
- Cohabitation is an ambiguous relationship state. It is ill-defined. It can mean different things from couple to couple and even different things for the two people in the cohabiting union (like the different motivations for men and women).
- Cohabitation increases constraint commitment (e.g., shared lease agreement, joint mobile data plan, co-owned pet) but does not inherently increase levels of dedication.
In the end, couples are constrained to be together. They aren’t necessarily committed to their relationship, but they don’t want to be alone or go through the hassle of a break-up. So relational inertia moves them toward marriage. For those who are engaged before living together, their dedication is high, so they maybe immune to some of the problems associated with cohabitation.
Another practical consideration has to do with motivation. Consider test driving a car as an analogy. If you take a car out for a test drive, you likely drive it differently than if you just purchased a new ride. If you’re trying to preserve something you just spent lots of money on, you’ll treat it differently than if you’re just checking to see if it’s something you want to buy. In the “test drive” scenario, you’re more likely to look for faults. You take an evaluative posture, assessing if it is worth the price you would have to pay for it. But you enjoy driving it without any of the responsibility for owning it. In the “new owner” scenario, you’re more likely to brag about its good qualities. You are also likely to downplay or overlook some of its weaknesses. Like the Proverb (20:14) suggests: “‘It’s no good, it’s no good!’ says the buyer— then goes off and boasts about the purchase.” The point of the analogy is that when we enter cohabitation to see if the relationship is what we want, we set ourselves up with a different perspective than if we enter into it fully committed. The same friction of melding two separate lives into one occurs, but how people with different motivations manage and evaluate that friction will be different. To set up better odds for success, there are good reasons to be “all in” before it happens.
Principles Rule the Day
From principle, there are also arguments against cohabitation. To get to these we have to be willing to consider the role of sex in marriage and cohabitation. Almost every cohabiting and marital relationship includes consensual sexual liaisons between partners and a practically universal expectation for sexual exclusivity. So, we have to ask what are the Biblical principles related to sex? More profoundly, we have to ask how sex is related to marriage?
According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, half of all Christians see premarital sex between two consenting adults as sometimes or always acceptable. This view represents changing social mores, a prevailing belief or norm. But in the Bible, we have unchanging standards and instructions. It is useful to review Scriptures about when sex is permissible or not. These provide a framework for understanding the principles that can guide decisions.
Drawing on the guiding principles of Scripture (e.g., prohibitions against promiscuity, adultery, and unnatural sexual expressions, see Lev. 20; Rom. 2), there is a sharp warning against flippantly deciding to live together or letting pragmatic arguments win the day. As Hebrews 13:4 states, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (ESV).
With about three-fourths of couples cohabiting before marriage and with the widespread belief that living together before marriage decreases the probability of divorce, we cannot simply ignore cohabitation, but neither should we accept it as the new normal. We must review the principles of Scripture, which we believe should guide our actions and should supersede pragmatic decision making.
Assuming the motivations are good – that people want to test the waters of their relationship to make it more robust to divorce, that there are practical advantages to cohabiting – what can Christian folks advise? First, we can highlight differences between dedication and constraint commitment. Second, we encourage premarital counseling, which intentionally instigates conversations about compatibility, not to mention helps couples develop realistic expectations about living together and marriage. Third, we suggest and encourage living with roommates to address the real needs for cost-savings.
So, what’s your position on cohabitation? How does your faith impact decisions and advice you give about cohabitation? Are you willing to have conversations with your family about this issue, even if the conversations are awkward and uncomfortable?
Thanks for joining the conversation.
–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski
“Cohabitation: A Rising Trend We Cannot Ignore.” Billy Graham Evangelical Association, November 22, 2022, https://billygraham.org/story/cohabitation-a-rising-trend-we-cant-ignore/
Jeff Diamant, “Hall of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consent adults is sometimes or always acceptable.” Pew Research Center, August 31, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/08/31/half-of-u-s-christians-say-casual-sex-between-consenting-adults-is-sometimes-or-always-acceptable/
Penelope M. Huang, Pamela J. Smock, Wendy D. Manning, and Cara A. Bergstrom-Lynch, “He Says, She Says: Gender and Cohabitation,” Journal of Family Issues 32, no. 7 (2011): 876–905.
Galena K. Rhoades, Scott M. Stanley, and Howard J. Markman, “Couples’ Reasons for Cohabitation: Associations with Individual Well-Being and Relationship Quality,” Journal of Family Issues 30, no. 2 (2009): 238–258.
Sharon Sassler and Daniel T. Lichter, “Cohabitation and Marriage: Complexity and Diversity in Union-Formation Patterns,” Journal of Marriage and Family 82, no. 1 (2020): 35–61.
Scott Stanley and Galena K. Rhodes, “What’s the Plan? Cohabitation, Engagement, and Divorce,” Institute of Family Studies, April 2023, https://ifstudies.org/ifs-admin/resources/reports/cohabitationreportapr2023-final.pdf