Cohabitation: the Cart before the Horse

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, nearly half of 20-somethings 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.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce. As Christians we would disagree with that assessment and with the whole idea of cohabitation because it puts the cart of sexual intimacy before the horse of commitment. Our assessment is based upon the nature of marriage as designed by God and revealed in the Scripture. Not that it matters to our faith, but research indicates that the conventional “wisdom” of our culture is contradicted by experience.  “Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not,” so says Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay in an April 14, 2012 article in the New York Times. She mentions that most cohabiting couples get there more by “sliding than deciding.” She says that “moving from dating to 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.”  She also describes the stark reality that sliding into cohabitation is a lot easier than getting out.  “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.”  Most helpful is Jay’s assessment of the different reasons why women and men cohabit. “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. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.” Jay finishes her article by saying that while she has no moral qualms about cohabitation and that it is probably here to stay, she cautions couples to be very careful of this arrangement. “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one, and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.” Marriage is difficult enough without starting out from a deficit. God’s design offers the best scenario in which to find someone we fit together with in our hearts, and to whom we can commit ourselves for a lifetime. Once again, the “foolishness of God” is wiser than the wisdom of culture.

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