Is Cohabiting Before Marriage Harmful in the Long Term?

I suppose there has never been a time when cohabiting or “living together” has been as popular as it is today.  On the surface, once can see why a couple would want to “test the waters” of marriage before diving in.  After all, who would buy a car without a test drive?  Who would move into a house without getting a building inspector to check things out?  We’ve all heard that you don’t really know someone until you live with them so perhaps it’s a good idea to try out a marriage before signing papers.

Unfortunately, marriages don’t appear to follow the same rules as house and car buying.  At least this is the finding of a new book by Glenn T. Stanton.  Stanton is the director of Family Formation Studies for Focus on the Family.  In his book, The Ring Makes All the Difference:  The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage, Stanton suggests that it may be time to rethink our reliance on cohabiting as a pre-test of marriage.  The good folks at Enrich Canada (an organization dedicated to helping couples prepare for and maintain healthy marital relationships that last a lifetime) recently reviewed Feldhahn’ s book and highlighted Stanton’s central finding:

Cohabiting is harmful to long-term marital success.  Stanton reviewed several studies that reached a common conclusion: “People with cohabitating experience who marry have a 50 to 80 percent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited.”  Now, this does not mean that young people today don’t value marriage.  According to a recent study cited by Stanton, “Millennials have ‘the strongest desire to marry’ of any generation alive today.”  But they have an equally strong desire to “get it right.”  As a result, Stanton writes, they hope cohabiting will help them make sure they’re with the right partner.  Unfortunately, cohabiting does not appear to be living up to its billing.
In the review that Enrich Canada did of Stanton’s book, they highlighted a couple of reasons put forth by Stanton that the “cohabiting as test drive” theory might not work:

1.     Commitment levels of cohabiting couples is ambiguous.  Ambiguity may be good in some things but it is clearly not a good building block for a fifty-year relationship.  Enrich Canada summarized Stanton’s point this way: “Clearly-defined and agreed-upon rules provide a reference point that the couple can come back to when faced with a disagreement.”  Marriage provides this reference point; cohabiting does not.

2.    Cohabiting couples may develop poor relational skills.  In the back of their minds couples who cohabit always know they have an easy way out.  This may consciously or subconsciously hinder them from taking relational issues seriously.  The damage this can do to a relationship is evident when you remember that it’s not usually large problems that destroy long-term relationships but an accumulation of many small issues.

The bottom line for Stanton is this:  Marriage takes commitment!  And rather than encouraging commitment, wanting to test-drive a relationship may lead to unintended consequences such as shallow commitment levels and poor communication skills.  Enrich Canada concludes, “Defining the commitment at the start provides a solid base on which to build a relationship that will last decades, no matter the ups and downs.”

Andrea MelansonComment