October 16, 2017

Why Cohabitation Is A Bad Idea

The risk of living together before marriage

By In Relationships
// by Tyler Zach //


Two-thirds of 20-somethings said they believed that living together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce, according to a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project. This shows that there is a huge disconnect between perception and reality.

The statistics show that if you live with someone before marriage, you’ll have a 50% chance of getting married, a separation rate five times that of a married couple, and a much higher chance of experiencing infidelity in the relationship.

Cohabitation is one of our culture’s biggest trends right now because of its many perceived benefits. If you live together you can “test drive” the relationship to see if it will work out or not. You won’t have to say goodbye at night or wake up alone in the morning. In addition, you can combine your income with your partner’s to upgrade to a new apartment or house.

However, if you are living with someone or thinking about it, you should know that this cultural trend is way outside the norm of both history and church tradition. According to an NPR article, fifty years ago 10% of first marriages started out cohabitating. Today, the number is more than 65%. That’s a 55% jump in just half a century. The biggest rise has happened in the last decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of U.S. adults in cohabitating relationships grew by 29% from 2007 to 2016.

The main point is, while cohabitation may not seem like a big deal now because “everyone is doing it,” the mere fact that our generation is the only one in history that thinks this is a good idea should cause us to stop and reflect.

Common Wisdom

Here are some reasons why experts have made a case for why it’s dangerous to live together before marriage.

1) You might slide rather than decide.

Couples who live together before marriage will have the temptation to “slide” into marriage rather than “decide.” This is when both partners agree to get married because it seems like the next “logical” step. But sliding prevents you from feeling the cost of the decision and having the necessary communication to set healthy expectations for a lifelong marriage. 

2) You might actually be postponing commitment.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, in a New York Times article warned,

“Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.”

3) You might marry the wrong person.

The “inertia effect” of living together makes it much more difficult for you to break up with your partner because of the investment in the relationship over a period of time. In other words, you’ll dig yourself into a hole you can’t get out of.

As Meg Jay explains,

“Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in. Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made. The greater the setup costs, the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money and effort it requires to make a change.”

Simply put, cohabitating will make it extremely hard for you to break up with the wrong person once you realize you don’t want to marry them.

Biblical Wisdom

For our flourishing and protection, God has established marriage as a covenantal relationship – an oath-binding, publicly-witnessed, till-death-do-us-part, unconditional-loving commitment that orbits around a choice/promise rather than needs/feelings.

There is a big difference between a covenant and consumer relationship. Pastor Tim Keller explains,

“A consumer relationship is where you’re relating to a vendor and you have a relationship as long as the vendor is giving you a product at a good price.  But you’re always looking for an upgrade. And so what you say to your vendor is ‘We have a relationship but you’d better keep adjusting to me, because if you don’t meet my needs I’m out of here because my needs are more important than the relationship. We have a relationship but if I can get my needs met better somewhere else, that’s where I will go.’ But a covenant relationship is exactly the opposite. The consumer relationship says, “You adjust to me or I’m out of here”, but a covenant relationship says, “I will adjust to you because I’ve made a promise”. And the relationship is more important than my needs. My needs are less important than the sustenance of the relationship.”

A covenant protects you in three important ways:

1) A covenant strengthens private intentions with public promises.

A couple can either go public with their commitment or make a private arrangement between the two of them. Cohabitation is a way of keeping the relationship a private affair. The danger of a private arrangement is that it ensures an easier escape if things don’t work out. There is far less accountability.

In his book Married for God, Christopher Ash explains the contrast between private and public promises:

“Private assurances are terribly easy to break; they evaporate like the morning dew. … But when all my wider family, my friends, my work colleagues, and my neighbors know I have publicly made this pledge, then I am much more inclined to keep it. I do not want them thinking I am a liar. And marriage begins precisely with those public promises.”

2) A covenant frees you to be your true self.

Until you are absolutely convinced that your partner won’t leave you, you’ll never be free from performing. As one cohabiter said about her boyfriend, “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife.” You’ll always feel the temptation to “put on your best self” and perform well whether it’s in the bedroom or somewhere else to keep your partner from leaving you.

You’ll also never be free to be fully honest and vulnerable with your deepest fears, secrets, and insecurities if you think your partner might leave you. The freedom to be your true self only happens in a marriage covenant where both individuals know that the other person isn’t going anywhere.

3) A covenant keeps you from being exploited sexually, emotionally, and financially.

We’ve all heard the popular saying, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Another way to say it would be, “Why should I give up my independence when I can have a friend with benefits?” This is what having a consumer-mentality looks like.

In every consumer relationship you’ll have someone who is more committed than the other. The danger, as Tim Keller points out, is that the covenanter will get exploited by the consumer – the one keeping their options open and always on the look-out for an “upgrade.” That is why the covenanter makes emotional, financial, and sexual sacrifices to keep their partner in the relationship. The covenanter will always feel like they are giving and that the other person is taking. The covenanter will constantly feel let down, used, and angry because the other person isn’t as “committed” as them.

You’ll never be at peace unless you know your partner truly loves you enough to give up their independence and confine their love to you regardless of the benefits or “goods and services” you provide.

One of the most common “goods” that cohabiters exchange is the gift of sex. However, there is a huge misconception about this gift. Sex is not a consumer good, but rather a covenant sacrament.

Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew said,

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3–6)

God’s good plan is not for you to leave your parents and partly cleave to someone else. His plan for you is to give all of yourself and become “one flesh.” Becoming one flesh involves a full merger of a couples’ time, possessions, finances, bodies, and so on. 

To be sacrificial in the area of sex alone without being sacrificial with your finances for example is consumer exploitation. It’s a half-merger. But a marriage covenant protects you from exploitation because it creates a full union that allow the couple to be vulnerable and sacrificial in every area, not just one.

A marriage covenant puts sex in its rightful place. God created sex to be the initiation of a marriage covenant. That’s why he chose to use the physical metaphor of “one flesh” when describing marriage. Sex was intended to kick off a marriage, not a consumer relationship. And sex within the context of a covenant frees us from having to “put on a show” or “perform” for the other. It’s becomes a beautiful expression of the full union of two mingled souls.

If/Before Cohabitating Ask Yourself:

  • If cohabitating couples have a greater chance of divorce, a higher degree of infidelity, and 1/2 never go on to get married, what gives you the confidence to think you won’t be another statistic?
  • If your partner moved out tomorrow what emotional, physical, or financial trouble would you be in?
  • Would you feel more secure or less if your partner stood up and declared their vows to you in a public ceremony?
  • Would your partner take care of your medical bills if you got severely ill? How do you know? 
  • Do you feel like you can be fully honest and vulnerable with your partner? Do you feel like you need to “put on your best self” every day to make them stick around?
  • Because the Bible says that there must not be a hint of sexual immorality (Eph. 5:3) and prohibits sex outside of marriage (Matt. 19:18), wouldn’t living with someone make it impossible to obey God in the area of purity?
  • Will living with someone help or hinder you in drawing other family members or friends to Jesus? Will it increase or decrease your evangelistic witness? 

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