Pre-Marital Cohabiting: Does It Help?

Whenever I see the word pre-marital I immediately think pre-marital sex. Probably it has something to do with growing up with staunch evangelical perspectives on maintaining moral purity. Obviously it has negative connotations in this context for various reasons, and I agree with some and disagree with most. It’s complicated. But I don’t really want to go there right now.

Instead I’m thinking about this article that has shown up on my feeds numerous times in the last week. Since I’m already married, and cohabiting with my husband, and my babies, I just glanced at it. And cohabitation isn’t anything new, it’s been around for a long long while, and people have been talking about it more openly for bit now. But, I started reading it this morning, and thinking again about the word pre-marital, and by association, marriage.

I will be honest. I don’t really bat an eye anymore when I hear an unmarried couple is living together. In fact, I’m always surprised when I hear of a couple that is getting ready to get married and they are not living together. Living together is the norm. In fact, I feel like it makes sense in so many ways to have this “trial” time before the big commitment. To me it seemed 75% of marriage that first year was figuring out how to live together. Andy and I are completely opposite on everything. How the toilet paper roll goes on. Hanging up towels. Clothes on the floor or in a basket. Locking doors. Clean counters. The toothpaste. If a couple can get that piece “out of the way” then maybe that first year wouldn’t have so many challenges, especially those that would lead to separation or divorce.

But apparently, according to this study:

In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce.

But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages — and more likely to divorce — than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.

The issue here isn’t really about pre-marital sex, although for much of a certain Christian subculture this is probably seen as part of the issue, and in general, a big problem and even the root cause of other problems. Rather it’s more about the deeper issue of defining marriage – the decision to commit to another for the long-term.

She was talking about what researchers call “sliding, not deciding.” Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.

I can imagine how the conversation wouldn’t be “necessary” in so many cases. There’s economics. There’s being environmentally conscientious (not wasting gas going to and from or double the electricity and utilities). There’s ease and convenience. But I think there’s something here about the error in thinking that somehow living together will naturally morph into committing to each other. Someone on Facebook mentioned the need for intentional conversation. I agree. What people don’t realize about going from co-habiting roomies to co-habiting life-partners as hashed out in DTRs (defining the relationship) is that the process, those conversations really strips the situation of any romance in a lot of ways. That long term commitment of marriage, it’s so real. It’s knitty-gritty. And while living together might provide some insight into the other person, and that person’s routines, idiosyncrasies, even strange neuroses, it doesn’t guarantee that the road to something long-term, and the road after that long-term decision, will be easy. Or even make much sense.

Deciding to commit to another person – not only with your body and mind, but with your possessions, your space, your daily ins and outs – is one thing. That’s why cohabitation doesn’t necessarily make the best foundation for that long-term commitment.

Still, there’s a flip-side that’s problematic to me. And this is where I qualify my entire thought.

Marriage. I’ve bought into the institution. I believe in it. I hold it up. But, I don’t think it’s for everyone. I think there are ways to be committed to another person that doesn’t require the formal (religious or civil) expression of marriage. I do think that everyone should be given an equal chance for it (again, another conversation for another time), but I think that part of the problem with cohabitation is we’ve put marriage on a terrible pedestal and equated it with the ultimate expression of faithfulness and loyalty (trust me, I know plenty of couples – straight, gay – who are the most faithful cohabitors ever, much more than many legally married folks). The problem for me is the language of marriage, and all the ideals associated with it – often perpetuated by the Church. When the long-term commitment of marriage has to look like a Disney ending, so if in that temporary period the relationship isn’t moving towards that ideal, then it’s often acceptable to call it quits. WTH? And it’s not only in marriage, it’s in our jobs, our churches, our communities, our neighborhoods. If a situation isn’t matching our unrealistic expectations, then we’re told to pursue something else. What about commitment…no matter what? (Of course, I’m not including violence and abuse in the “no matter what.”) What about commitment…for the sake of the other person…for the sake of you. 

While co-habitation doesn’t guarantee marriage – neither does marriage guarantee forever. At least, not without seriously girding up your loins every single day, and making that daily choice to commit to the other person.

The point for me is that ultimately there’s no black and white solution. No blueprints. No formulas. For this thing called marriage. Relationship. Life. Maybe there’s something to the whole arranged marriage thing. Because if we’re talking about marriage as commitment, as covenant, as faithfulness and loyalty – that’s not something that simply happens to a person. It’s a daily, intentional choice. It’s a struggle and living-into faithfulness. And I imagine that for an arranged marriage you learn how to let go of your expectations. And just maybe you learn a little bit how love is bigger than those teeny-bopper rom-com endings. (Not that we’re thinking about this for our bebes…but hm….)

I agree:

I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. A mentor of mine used to say, “The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,” and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.

The pre-marital issue shouldn’t be about sex and purity. And not even really about living together. It should be about faithfulness. Steadfastness. Devotion. Kind of like Someone I have in my life who teaches both me and Andy every. Single. Day.

3 thoughts on “Pre-Marital Cohabiting: Does It Help?

  • April 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm
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    First, your musings are a great starting point for good rich conversation in my world Thanks

    It is refreshing to look at marriage beyond sex and certainly that applies to the pre-marital relationship as well. I am both surprised and comforted about the research in the article you reference. God’s creative expression in each of us plays out often in ways that we fight yet He prepares us for through His word and His people. I suppose marriage is just another example of how the kingdom of God could and should look in the real world.

    Plus…I am very interested in your “more on that later subjects.”

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  • April 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm
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    Interesting, Gods covenant for marriage is such a perfect picture of our relationship w/ our Lord….but the world, so often as it always does…wants to figure out a “better” way. Marriage is super…super hard, super enlightening, super sad, super mad, but superior to anything else we can share w/ one special person. Especially if we have God in the middle of it. I personally have seen the difference. I agree and appreciate the last remark about marriage. “The best time to work on marriage is before he or she has one.” Funny yesterday I did hear a DJ say the best thing about NOT living together before marriage was finding out all these neat things about his wife. Pretty cool way of looking at….

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  • April 17, 2012 at 10:59 pm
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    I have often thought about how I will handle this if I get remarried. The article, and your thoughts bring up some good points. As with everything there is a practical side (2 kids, a mortgage, leases, etc) and a spiritual side…I used to only see the spiritual. 🙂

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