In Praise of Marriage

Should couples contemplating marriage live together for a time before getting married? After all, isn’t it a good idea to “test the waters” before making a lifetime decision? It certainly appears that a lot of young couples agree with this sentiment. 2011 census data as well as my own experience as a pastor who does pre-marital counseling both indicate that more people than ever are choosing to live together before marriage.

2011 census data indicate that the percentage of common-law families rose from 15.7 % to 16.3 % in the period from 2001-2011. Of course, if you add to this number those who married following a period of cohabitation, the percentage would be much higher. American studies suggest that as many as 60% of all couples now cohabit before marriage.

Now, you might expect that a Baptist pastor would frown on this given biblical teaching that God intended sexual intercourse as a gift for married couples. As true as this may be, let’s put aside “religious” arguments for a moment. I want to suggest to you that even a non-religious couple should think seriously before choosing to co-habit before marriage. Why? Because research indicates that by choosing to live together before marriage, you may be unintentionally harming your chances of long-term marital happiness. Why do I say this?

Recently, two researchers, Peter Larson and David Olson did a large study of 35, 684 couples (some of whom were cohabiting and some not), evaluating the strength and quality of their relationships. The results were dramatic. Only 21% of the non-engaged couples who were living together had very strong and stable relationships compared with 51% of non-engaged couples who were not living together. Even more significant, 48% of these cohabiting couples were in relationships that the researchers described as “conflicted” compared with only 16% of those who were not living together. The researchers concluded: “The results . . . indicate all premarital couples who cohabitate have poorer relationship quality than those who do not live together . . . . This finding is consistent with several other recent studies of cohabitation.”

In fact, the negative consequences of living together are so pronounced that researchers have dubbed these consequences “the cohabitation effect.” Study after study have shown that couples who cohabit before marriage report less satisfaction with their marriage and are more likely to get divorced.

My own experience supports the research. In my pre-marital counseling, I have found (with some exceptions) that couples who are not cohabitating seem to have stronger, more stable relationships than those who do. My experience (and research supports this as well) is that the decision to live together is often prompted by motives to do with economics and convenience rather than commitment. Further, research indicates that men and women often enter into a cohabiting situation with different mindsets. Men tend to cohabit in order to test a relationship and to avoid having to make a “real” commitment whereas women see cohabitation as moving one step closer to wedding bells.

Certainly, couples who don’t cohabit before marriage are not guaranteed a lifetime of marital bliss. Many of these couples end up divorcing as well. And it is certainly possible for a couple who have chosen to cohabit before marriage to have a long and happy life together. Still, the research is clear. Your future marriage has the best chance of lasting for a lifetime if you do not live together beforehand. If nothing else, let me encourage you not to begin cohabiting thoughtlessly. Talk with your partner about the expectations each of you have about the relationship, advantages and disadvantages to cohabiting, and how quickly you see the relationship moving towards marriage. The very worst thing you can do is slide into cohabitation with very little thought or discussion. Decisions to do with cohabitation and marriage can have consequences that last a lifetime. These commitments are too serious to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly.

Richard JacksonComment