“The Cohabitation Trap”–Why Marriage Matters

Does living together before marriage lead to successful marriages? The very fact that Psychology Today takes up this question in its August 2005 cover story is significant. In essence, the article “The Cohabitation Trap: When ‘Just Living Together’ Sabotages Love,” provides a fascinating look into how secular social science evaluates the question. Written by Nancy Wartik, the article is advertised with the following blurb: “Living together before marriage seems like a smart way to road test the relationship. But cohabitation may lead you to wed for all the wrong reasons–or turn into a one-way trip to splitsville.” Wartik’s article deserves attention, and Christians should be interested to overhear this secular consideration of marriage and its meaning.

Wartik begins the article by describing her own situation–currently married to the man she lived with prior to matrimony. Looking back, she explains her situation: “By then, we were 99 percent sure we’d marry someday–just not without living together first. 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 logic Wartik describes is shared by millions of Americans. According to her research, nearly five million opposite-sex couples in the United States currently live together without marriage, and millions more have done so at some time in the past. Within just a few years of deciding to live together, most couples either get married or dissolve the relationship.

An amazingly large number of Americans see cohabitation as something of a laboratory for future marriage. Individuals agree to cohabitate, enjoying personal and sexual intimacy, without making the final commitment of marriage. The period of cohabitation amounts to a test-run for marriage. The logic is simple–couples believe that living together will allow them to make an informed and reasonable decision about marriage.

Nevertheless, the research is now clear. Cohabitation prior to marriage serves to undermine, rather than to strengthen the marital bond. Here’s how Wartik summarizes the research: “Couples who move in together before marriage have up to two times the odds of divorce, as compared with couples who marry before living together. Moreover, married couples who have lived together before exchanging vows tend to have poorer-quality marriages than couples who moved in after the wedding. Those who cohabited first report less satisfaction, more arguing, poorer communication and lower levels of commitment.”

Social scientists are alarmed at these findings. Some now believe that cohabitation before marriage undermines the very notion of commitment. As Wartik explains, “The precautions we take to ensure marriage is right for us may wind up working against us.”

There seem to be two major theories offered as explanations for this phenomenon. Wartik describes the “reigning explanation” as “the inertia hypothesis.” This theory suggests “that many of us slide into marriage without ever making an explicit decision to commit. We move in together, we get comfortable, and pretty soon marriage starts to seem like the path of least resistance. Even if the relationship is only tolerable, the next stage seems to be inevitable.”

The inertia theory suggests that marriage just “happens” to couples who have been cohabitating for some time. Paul Amato, a professor at Penn State University, suggests, “There’s an inevitable pressure that creates momentum towards marriage . . . . I’ve talked to many cohabiting couples and they’ll say, ‘My mother was so unhappy until I told her we were getting married–and then she was so relieved.'” Amato also suggests that issues like shared financial arrangements and shared offspring also build the momentum towards marriage.

The inertia theory may offer considerable insight into the way cohabiting men understand marriage. Some researchers suggest that cohabitating men demonstrate a high level of uncertainty about the relationship and bring that same uncertainty into marriage. Wartik cites a 2004 study by psychologist Scott Stanley that found “that men who had lived with their spouse premaritally were on average less committed to their marriages than those who hadn’t.”

The other major theory suggests that the experience of cohabitation itself weakens the marital bond. As Amato explains, “A couple of studies show that when couples cohabit, they tend to adopt less conventional beliefs about marriage and divorce, and it tends to make them less religious.” As Wartik expands the idea: “That could translate, once married, to a greater willingness to consider options that are traditionally frowned upon–like saying ‘so long’ to an ailing marriage.”

Making an observation that would seem obvious to many readers, Wartik suggests that cohabitating couples “may just be less traditional people–less likely to stay in an unhappy marriage in observance of religious beliefs or for the sake of appearances.” Interestingly, William Pinsof, president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University argues, “Those who choose to live together before getting married have a different attitude about marriage to begin with. I think cohabiting is a reflection of that, not a cause of higher divorce rates.”

Wartik describes the debate over cohabitation as “partly a rehash of the values and morals conflicts that tend to become political footballs in America today.” Nevertheless, she insists that all parties must agree that cohabitation is often injurious to children. “Cohabitating relationships, by their nature, appear to be less fulfilling than marital relationships,” she argues. People who cohabit say they are less satisfied and more likely to feel depressed, the result, perhaps, of “the inherent lack of stability” in cohabitating relationships. Wartik then asserts, “As a result, cohabitation is not an ideal living arrangement for children. Emotionally or academically, the children of cohabiters just don’t do as well, on average, as those with two married parents, and money doesn’t fully explain the difference.”

Nancy Wartik concludes her article by suggesting ways that cohabitation can be made less injurious to marriage. Specifically, she suggests that couples should not cohabitate until they have settled the marriage question, preferably by a formal engagement prior to living together.

What should Christians think of this research? In the first place, the social evidence as indicated in this research demonstrates what happens when sex and intimacy are decoupled from marriage. In a profound way, this research affirms the integrity of marriage as an institution and should serve to remind Christians that sexual intimacy prior to marriage can only serve to undermine the integrity of the institution and the vows that hold it together. When access to sex is liberated from the responsibilities and commitments of marriage, marriage is inevitably redefined as an option.

The very fact that couples who cohabit before marriage have less satisfactory marriages than those who did not points to the basic goodness of marriage and to the importance of marriage as an institution central to human health, happiness, and wholeness.

Wartik gets to the heart of the issue when she suggests that many persons “have different standards for living partners than for life partners.” In essence, that’s the problem. The biblical understanding of marriage begins with the presupposition that life partners and living partners should be one and the same. To suggest otherwise is to miss the entire point of marriage. When Amato explains, “People are much fussier about whom they marry than whom they cohabitate with,” this point is made in vivid terms.

Christians do not base our understanding of marriage and cohabitation on sociological research. Our Creator has defined marriage for us and commanded respect for marriage as a central human responsibility. We know that cohabitation is injurious to marriage precisely because it violates God’s command that sex and marriage are never to be separated. Nevertheless, an article like this serves to remind us that human experience does prove the truthfulness of God’s Word. When the world of social science comes face to face with the reality that cohabitation undermines marriage, the church should take notice.