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"The cohabitation trap" — Why marriage matters
August 29, 2005
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary
Does living together before marriage lead to successful marriages? The very fact that Psychology Today takes up this question in its August 2005 cover story is significant. In essence, the article, "The Cohabitation Trap: When 'Just Living Together' Sabotages Love," provides a fascinating look into how secular social science evaluates the question. Written by Nancy Wartik, the article is advertised with the following blurb: "Living together before marriage seems like a smart way to road test the relationship. But cohabitation may lead you to wed for all the wrong reasons — or turn into a one-way trip to splitsville." Wartik's article deserves attention, and Christians should be interested to overhear this secular consideration of marriage and its meaning.
Wartik begins the article by describing her own situation — currently married to the man she lived with prior to matrimony. She explains: "By then, we were 99 percent sure we'd marry someday — just not without living together first. I couldn't imagine getting hitched to anyone I hadn't taken on a test-spin as a roommate. Conjoin with someone before sharing a bathroom? Not likely!"
The logic Wartik describes is shared by millions of Americans. According to her research, nearly five million opposite-sex couples in the U.S. currently live together without marriage, and millions more have done so at some time in the past. Within just a few years of deciding to live together, most couples either get married or dissolve the relationship.
An amazingly large number of Americans see cohabitation as something of a laboratory for future marriage. Individuals agree to cohabitate, enjoying personal and sexual intimacy, without making the final commitment of marriage. The period of cohabitation amounts to a test-run for marriage. The logic is simple — couples believe that living together will allow them to make an informed decision about marriage.
Nevertheless, the research is now clear. Cohabitation prior to marriage serves to undermine, rather than to strengthen the marital bond. Here's how Wartik summarizes the research: "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."
Social scientists are alarmed at these findings. Some now believe that cohabitation before marriage undermines the very notion of commitment. As Wartik explains, "The precautions we take to ensure marriage is right for us may wind up working against us."
There seem to be two major theories offered as explanations for this phenomenon. Wartik describes the "reigning explanation" as "the inertia hypothesis." This theory suggests "that many of us slide into marriage without ever 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."
The other major theory suggests that the experience of cohabitation itself weakens the marital bond. As the article explains, "A couple of studies show that when couples cohabit, they tend to adopt less conventional beliefs about marriage and divorce." Wartik expands the idea: "That could translate, once married, to a greater willingness to consider options that are traditionally frowned upon — like saying 'so long' to an ailing marriage."
Wartik concludes her article by suggesting ways that cohabitation can be made less injurious to marriage. Specifically, she sug-gests that couples should not cohabitate until they have settled the marriage question, preferably by a formal engagement prior to living together.
What should Christians think of this research? In the first place, the social evidence as indicated in this research demonstrates what happens when sex and intimacy are decoupled from marriage. In a profound way, this research affirms the integrity of marriage as an institution and should serve to remind Christians that sexual intimacy prior to marriage can only serve to undermine the integrity of the institution and the vows that hold it together. When access to sex is liberated from the responsibilities and commitments of marriage, marriage is inevitably redefined as an option.
The very fact that couples who cohabit before marriage have less satisfactory marriages than those who did not points to the basic goodness of marriage and to the importance of marriage as an institution central to human health, happiness and wholeness.
Wartik gets to the heart of the issue when she suggests that many persons "have different standards for living partners than for life partners." In essence, that's the prob-lem. The biblical understanding of marriage begins with the presupposition that life partners and living partners should be one and the same. Christians do not base our understanding of marriage and cohabitation on sociological research. Our Creator has defined marriage for us and commanded respect for marriage as a central responsibility. We know that co-habitation is injurious to marriage precisely because it violates God's command that sex and marriage are never to be separated. Nevertheless, an article like this shows that experience does prove the truthfulness of God's Word.