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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Living Together? Not if you want it to last.

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. Looking back, she explains her situation: "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 United States 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 and reasonable 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. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage seems to be inevitable."

The inertia theory suggests that marriage just "happens" to couples who have been cohabitating for some time. Paul Amato, a professor at Penn State University, suggests, "There's an inevitable pressure that creates momentum towards marriage . . . . I've talked to many cohabiting couples and they'll say, 'My mother was so unhappy until I told her we were getting married--and then she was so relieved.'" Amato also suggests that issues like shared financial arrangements and shared offspring also build the momentum towards marriage.

The inertia theory may offer considerable insight into the way cohabiting men understand marriage. Some researchers suggest that cohabitating men demonstrate a high level of uncertainty about the relationship and bring that same uncertainty into marriage. Wartik cites a 2004 study by psychologist Scott Stanley that found "that men who had lived with their spouse premaritally were on average less committed to their marriages than those who hadn't."

The other major theory suggests that the experience of cohabitation itself weakens the marital bond. As Amato explains, "A couple of studies show that when couples cohabit, they tend to adopt less conventional beliefs about marriage and divorce, and it tends to make them less religious." As 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."

Making an observation that would seem obvious to many readers, Wartik suggests that cohabitating couples "may just be less traditional people--less likely to stay in an unhappy marriage in observance of religious beliefs or for the sake of appearances." Interestingly, William Pinsof, president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University argues, "Those who choose to live together before getting married have a different attitude about marriage to begin with. I think cohabiting is a reflection of that, not a cause of higher divorce rates."

Wartik describes the debate over cohabitation as "partly a rehash of the values and morals conflicts that tend to become political footballs in America today." Nevertheless, she insists that all parties must agree that cohabitation is often injurious to children. "Cohabitating relationships, by their nature, appear to be less fulfilling than marital relationships," she argues. People who cohabit say they are less satisfied and more likely to feel depressed, the result, perhaps, of "the inherent lack of stability" in cohabitating relationships. Wartik then asserts, "As a result, cohabitation is not an ideal living arrangement for children. Emotionally or academically, the children of cohabiters just don't do as well, on average, as those with two married parents, and money doesn't fully explain the difference."

Nancy Wartik concludes her article by suggesting ways that cohabitation can be made less injurious to marriage. Specifically, she suggests 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 problem. The biblical understanding of marriage begins with the presupposition that life partners and living partners should be one and the same. To suggest otherwise is to miss the entire point of marriage. When Amato explains, "People are much fussier about whom they marry than whom they cohabitate with," this point is made in vivid terms.

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 human responsibility. We know that cohabitation 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 serves to remind us that human experience does prove the truthfulness of God's Word. When the world of social science comes face to face with the reality that cohabitation undermines marriage, the church should take notice.

blatantly stolen from Dr. Al Mohler's Website

Look - I'm not saying it can't work, just that it ain't what it is cracked up to be. I have one of my best friends who has been cohabitating for 8 years. They aren't considering marriage or children, so it works well for them. However, if you think it is a 'test run' for a successful marriage, then you are sadly mistaken.

What might work? Try this.


  • Hammer, you make some very good points. I do agree with most of them, but I have to say that you are coming across a little bit pompous. Are you saying that you were completly pure when you married? You have already pointed out that your wife was not. Do you preach to your bfriend on a regular basis about his living arrangements?
    I do admit, my husband and I lived together for about a year before we married. We were engaged (with a ring and wedding invitations and everything...) his lease was up and I had my own home. Not that that makes it right. Several times after leaving Church we discussed going to the JP until the "real" wedding b/c we felt guilty in relations to our faith. However, I am happier with him than I have ever been in my life. There is no chance that we are headed for anything but a long and happy life together.
    I do see your point about those who live together think that they can just "leave" if it doesn't work out. In our case, however, the night before our wedding... just before leaving so that the next time he saw me would be when the church doors opened... I told him, if you want to leave, now's your last chance. After this, the only way out is death, there is no such thing as divorce. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule... mistreatment, adultry, abuse of our children... but, I don't see those as being an issue either.
    I guess my point really is this... you come across as though you have all the answers and have never made a mistake. Sometimes, that is what it takes. I mean, how can you know that God heals if you have never felt pain. And how can you know how to do something right if you have never screwed it up.

    By Blogger sah mom, at 8/26/2005 06:06:00 PM  

  • SAH,
    The linked post about my wife and I was part of a series. Before I wrote that about us, I wrote this about me. I was far from pure...but I wish I had been.

    Despite my sinful actions prior to "getting it right", I disagree that, somehow, getting it right without getting it wrong first makes one unqualified to tell others how it should be done. The social science has documented what wrong is, and we already know what right is. For virtue to be preached, we need not have been 100% virtuous - we simply need to know what virtue is...and we all do.

    I don't preach to my friend about hsi living arrangements. You know why? He's not a Christian, and doesn't pretend to be one. While he can read the post here like everyone, he doesn't need me to tell him that I approve or disapprove of his decisions. Since all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, if he and his girlfriend have made their decision fully aware that it is not a recipe for marital success and, indeed, do not seek it, then I don't have a problem with it at all.

    You can't disciple someone who is not a disciple - but you can drive a friend away with poor decision making. I've reached the point where I am selective who I preach to, and when. He's heard the gospel - that's my only preaching task right now toward him. The rest is to be his friend.

    Thanks for your input. It's always great to get your perspective. The best commenters on my blog are the few I have left - those who use contructive criticism and are not cheerleaders!

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 8/29/2005 09:13:00 AM  

  • I agree with this synopsis wholeheartedly, even though, full disclosure, I lived with my husband before we were married. And being married is totally different for me than just livign together. I actually had a panic fit when we had been married 6 months ( and I was 3 mos PG, so perhaps hormones factored in) that for the first time in my life I didn't have a back-up plan.
    I tell my friends that you can't test run a relationship. You're either in it, or you're not.

    By Blogger Ella, at 8/31/2005 03:19:00 PM  

  • Interesting. At first glance this would seem to be counter to the divorce statistics blue staters love to point out. Statistically the best place for a stable marriage is Massachusetts and the worst (ignoring Nevada, that doesn't really count) is Arkansas. Most of the list follows accordingly -- even California has a below average divorce rate.

    But I don't think the statistics you point out really disagree with this, nor does your own experience. As you point out, it all comes down to commitment. Two people who live together "experimentally" are right off the bat starting out life together uncommitted.

    On the other hand, getting married just so you can finally get some action is about the worst possible reason for marriage. I don't have the statistics to prove it, but I suspect many in the south and from religious households get married young because they simply don't want to wait any longer.

    Another possibility I can't prove is living with someone strengthens your eventual marriage to someone else. Maybe.

    My wife and I lived together for quite a while before we were formally married, but for us the marriage was just a formality, the commitment was already there. But we were young and waited before announcing any engagement. (It was first love for both, so we've each have had completely monogamous lives, btw. Well, not counting third base, but... oh, never mind....)

    (Funny story: without us bringing it up, my eventual father-in-law forbade Christine and I to live together. Then only a few weeks later he learned that Christine didn't get on-campus housing. He then suggested we live together. I guess protecting one's daughter comes in layers and the thought of me being there to protect her away from the safety of the campus overrode any other concerns.)

    This past June we attended a wedding of our niece, who was our flower-girl 16 years ago, and a young man (not that this is relevant, but...) in the Marines to be deployed in January. There was a wonderful line in the ceremony that summed up my feeling of marriage beautifully. I'm not sure if the sentiment is liberal or conservative but it's dead-on correct:

    "There's nothing that I or anyone else can do to make you more married than you already are, for you are already one in spirit. We are just here to bless that oneness."

    (I got drafted to video the event, so I know I got the quote correct.)

    It reminds me of once learning that in Australia two people who have been living together for six months are considered legally married. My first reaction was "what a liberal law." A week or so later I contemplated it some more and thought "what a conservative law!"

    One last point in this long, rambling comment. A long time ago when I tried to reconcile all my various beliefs it occurred to me that the Bible almost never (I may be wrong on that, I'm not sure) talks about pre-marital sex. It does, however, talk about adultery quite a lot. I thought the reason for this was pre-marital sex simply doesn't exist. There is marriage in, as they say, the Biblical sense; period. All else is adultery.

    By Blogger Mark, at 8/31/2005 05:25:00 PM  

  • Mark
    Wonderful comment, you said the words that wouldn't come to me the night I posted my original comment. My husband and I, although not legally bound while we were living together, considered ourselves already married. The ceremony was a formality. Well, more than a formality, as it joined us in the eyes of the law and was conducted in a Church before God and witnesses. However, God saw us every day before the wedding. A wedding is a beautiful thing, but it does not constitute a marriage. I truly "felt" married long before we said "I do" and I know my husband felt the same way.
    I saw a billboard once that said "Nice Wedding, invite me to the marriage. Love, God". We invited God to our marriage long before we invited Him or anyone to our wedding.
    This is not to say that I want our children to live with someone before marriage... hypocritical, I know. But, under the right circumstances, I won't disown them for it!
    Anyway, thanks Mark, for helping me make my point.. even if you didn't know it!

    By Blogger sah mom, at 9/01/2005 09:14:00 AM  

  • "All our young lives we search for someone to love. Someone who makes us complete. We choose partners and change partners. We dance to a song of heartbreak and hope...all the while wondering if somewhere, somehow, there's someone Perfect...who might be searching for us." ~The Wonder Years


    Sent by

    By Blogger Habby, at 9/07/2005 07:44:00 PM  

  • As a side note, I read once that the average total length of marriages today is the same as it was several decades ago. The reason given was the increase in life expectancy directly counters the increased divorce rate.

    This lead to the speculation that modern divorce rates were really just "death substitutes".

    I don't think I really buy that explanation, but it's kind of interesting. And amusing.

    By Blogger Mark, at 9/08/2005 12:17:00 PM  

  • Mark,
    The line you quoted from the wedding is similar to what I say when I preside - the committment is there, or not. The wedding is more for guest support, I would present.

    As far as your adultery statement - I agree 100%. Why? If she's not your wife, she is someone else's - and the same with men.

    Keep stopping by, Mark.

    Thankfully, for the thinking public, "The Wonder Years" does not constitute a source of life direction or life decisions. That isn't to say that Spider Man can't have as cool a quote as Socrates. What is does mean is that one is from an established great mind, who has volumes of evidence to back it up - the other is from a cartoon on his way to fight Doc Ock.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 9/13/2005 04:59:00 PM  

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