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The Cohabitation Complication

The key to making marriage work—and what sets it apart from cohabitation—is commitment.

A major shift has occurred in our culture during the last 40 years: A growing number of couples are living together before they are married. By 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 10 million people were living with someone of the opposite sex, up from about 878,000 in 1960. Many of these couples view cohabitation as a trial run to see if marriage will work. As one woman writes, “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 dramatic rise in cohabitation can be traced to several factors, including:

  • Lenient modern attitudes about sex;
  • Young adults waiting longer to get married (the median age for first-time marriage is 27.5 for men and 25.6 for women—up from 22.8 and 20.3 in 1960);
  • A growing number of people in our culture who believe marriage is not important; and
  • The fear of failure—many singles don’t want to end up divorced like their parents. 

For many couples, it makes sense to live together so they can determine if their relationship will last before making the commitment of marriage. Living together is the normal type of pre-marriage relationship portrayed in countless movies and television shows. With each new generation of young people, the number of cohabiting couples is expected to rise.    

For followers of Christ, living together before marriage should not be a biblical option just from the standpoint of sexual purity alone; God’s Word is very clear about waiting until marriage to enjoy the sexual union.

But let’s also address the question of cohabitation as a trial run for marriage. Does living together really help you see if you are compatible?

While many couples believe that cohabitation simulates a marriage relationship, many researchers and counselors point out that it’s actually a false copy of the real thing. In a letter to a couple living together, Dr. Willard Harley writes,

… I suggest that you consider why couples who live together don’t marry. Ask yourself that very question. Why did you choose to live with your boyfriend instead of marrying him?

The answer is that you were not ready to make that commitment to him yet. First, you wanted to see if you still loved him after you cooked meals together, cleaned the apartment together and slept together. In other words, you wanted to see what married life would be like without the commitment of marriage.

But what you don’t seem to realize is that you will never know what married life is like unless you’re married. The commitment of marriage adds a dimension to your relationship that puts everything on its ear. Right now, you are testing each other to see if you are compatible. If either of you slips up, the test is over, and you are out the door. Marriage doesn’t work that way. Slip-ups don’t end the marriage, they just end the love you have for each other.

What, exactly, is the commitment of marriage? It is an agreement that you will take care of each other for life, regardless of life’s ups and downs. You will stick it out together through thick and thin. But the commitment of living together isn’t like that at all. It is simply a month-to-month rental agreement.

In other words, living together cannot work as a trial run before making the commitment of marriage, because that commitment is what sets marriage apart from every other relationship. It changes everything. 

Another problem with living together is what researchers call “relationship inertia.” Couples grow accustomed to living together, and they decide to get married because that seems like what they should do next. They may give in to pressure from parents, or they may feel they “owe each other” after investing so much of their lives in the relationship. As Dr. Scott Stanley, a professor of Family and Marital Studies at the University of Denver, says, “People who are cohabiting might end up marrying somebody they might not otherwise have married.”  They are “sliding, not deciding,” he says.

God’s Word (Genesis 2: 18-25) not only establishes blueprints for marriage, but it also reveals a progression for building a relationship:

  • Man is alone.
  • He recognizes his need for a helpmate.
  • God provides for this need.
  • Man receives that provision.
  • Both man and woman leave father and mother.
  • They cleave to one another.
  • They become one flesh.
  • They experience intimacy and oneness.

In God’s plan, when a man and woman become one flesh, they’ve already committed their lives to each other as a response to God’s provision. Sexual relations and cohabitation before marriage short-circuit this plan. 

So in the end, the decisions a couple makes before they are married reveal much about what a couple believes. Are they willing to believe what God’s Word says about building the type of relationship that will last a lifetime? Are they willing to believe in His plan for marriage? Are they willing to follow Him and believe He knows what is best for them?

© 2009 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

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