Do you know couples who live together outside of marriage?
So do I.
In fact, the narrative has become a familiar theme, even within the Christian church: twenty- and thirty-somethings have grown sour on the institution of marriage, for all kinds of reasons. But instead of swearing off romantic relationships (after all, “Love does make the world go ‘round”), couples have decided to move in together. Give it sort of a “test-run.”
No wedding, no ring, and presumably, no worries. If it doesn’t work out (and chances are it won’t), as they say in sports, “no harm, no foul.”
But there is always harm from a moral/spiritual perspective at a minimum.
This “test-drive” logic has even inspired Mexican lawmakers to recently propose two-year “marriage” contracts. You can simply call it quits after the allotted time and avoid divorce lawyers and legal fees.
There is a lot of energy and emotion wrapped up in this topic. I realize some of my readers are living together outside of marriage. Or perhaps you have adult children who are currently doing so. These observations are not intended to demean your or their character. It’s my hope that by having a loving and candid discussion about it, you – or they – might see that God’s plan for marriage provides all of us with the best chance to thrive as families.
And so, yes, cohabitation is dramatically on the rise, but not every young person subscribes to or endorses it. I’d like to introduce you to one of those people, my friend and colleague, Esther Fleece.
You might have already heard Esther on our radio broadcast this week (to listen click here). As Assistant to the President for Millennial Relations here at Focus, she speaks boldly and lovingly about God’s plan for the twenty-and-thirty-somethings in our culture. And although she might sometimes feel like it, she’s not alone, either.
Last week a few of us on the team, including Esther, traveled to the Catalyst leadership conference in Atlanta. What an exciting, energizing and encouraging event. Over 14,000 young people were gathered there. They are among the bright and rising lights of this country and our Christian faith. If you have ever lamented that America is “going to Hell in a hand basket,” chances are you haven’t spent time with this group.
I hope you’ll read Esther’s thoughtful and informative piece, which recently ran on the Washington Post “On Faith” blog. I also hope you’ll weigh in and share your thoughts about this topic. For starters, let me ask you a few questions:
· Why do you think cohabitation is the fastest-growing family type in the US?
· How are you as parents addressing this issue?
· Is your church engaging young people in your community about this?
· How do we do a better job at casting a vision for a healthier foundation in relationships?
In the past few months, there has been a lot of buzz about the steep rise in cohabitation across America, especially among my generation of twenty-somethings. The dialogue was started by “The State of Our Unions,” the annual report on marriage in the U.S., which found that what was still referred to as “living in sin” back in 1960 has grown fifteen-fold in the years since.
But the issue really hit home for me personally when two couples I’m friends with moved in together. Both have religious backgrounds, which has historically been a major deterrent to cohabitation. But both also come from divorced homes –and that’s the source of much of the tension for many men and women my age between personal faith and the need, as Beyonce sings, to “put a ring on it” before living together.
Sociologists often speak of how generations are shaped by what they are denied. The millennial generation has seen and felt the heartbreak surrounding divorce. Many of us were denied a stable home environment, so we struggle with commitment — not out of rebellion, but simply because we did not see “till death do us part” modeled by our parents. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it, though; being deprived of seeing many examples of long-lasting, unconditional love has actually caused us to desire it deeply.
The Pew Research Center has found that millennials have “the strongest desire to marry” of any generation today. An MTV poll a few years back found that 92 percent of young people 13 to 24 “definitely” or “probably” want to get married.
While that desire is strong, it is often matched (and beaten) by a paralyzing fear about making the jump to any commitment, especially a marriage. The meet-me-halfway point is cohabitation.
Unfortunately, cohabitation is not an answer to our longings; and it’s not a healthy preseason to marriage. Its message is, “I’d really like to take part of you. And maybe some time in the future I’ll consider taking all of you.” Ironically, that’s the very thing we’re afraid of — a commitment-free, self-focused relationship.
As a single millennial working for a Christian organization that helps couples build strong marriages and weather the rough times that come, I understand that marriage is not easy. I also understand that often times what is best for us is not the easiest path. One certainly doesn’t need to have any religious faith to understand this. Setting religious convictions aside, social science is not erring on the positive side for cohabitation. Rather, it is displaying that cohabitation is a pale counterfeit to what is best for us relationally.
My friend and coworker Glenn Stanton reveals in his new book, The Ring Makes All the Difference, that marriage, not cohabitation, is the best option for couples – but especially for women. Research tells us that a woman who cohabitates before marriage will increase her likelihood of getting a husband who:
is less committed to her;
is less committed than she is to the marriage;
is less likely to be emotionally and practically supportive; and
is more generally relationally negative.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but as Glenn and many other sociologists conclude, this pre-marriage experiment is not the best way to sustain a healthy relationship or to build a lifelong, lasting union “in sickness and in health.”
Cohabitation may be the fastest-growing family type in the U.S., but it is a mask to a true, authentic and committed relationship — marriage. Living together before saying “I do” will not help lower the divorce rate, and it will certainly not ensure an unbroken heart.
In many cases, in fact, it will lead to exactly the opposite.