What Cohabitation Does for Marriage

What Cohabitation Does for Marriage

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There are some curious things going on with cohabitation and marriage that seem to tell two different stories.

First, the folks at Pew recently told us (see p. 36) that young adults have the strongest desire to marry of any generation alive today. Other data supports this. And the unmarried folks in other generations are not, nor have ever been, disinterested in marriage.

But unmarried cohabitation is the fastest growing family/domestic form in the United States as well as most of the Western world. It's exploding, having increased 15-fold since 1960. And that growth has more than doubled in real numbers since the mid-1990s in the U.S. and by much more than that in other countries. In fact, more than 60 percent of marriages today are preceded by some form of cohabitation.

Young adults are pro-marriage, but cohabitation is sky-rocketing. Is this ironic, or does it make complete sense?

I address this curious question — and many others — in my latest book, The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage. In preparation for writing this book, I carefully collected and read nearly all the leading published academic studies on cohabitation published over the past 30 years. Yes, I'm a sad research nerd. And my book explains in plain, straightforward language what this impressive body of literature teaches us.

Most people cohabiting today (75%) see their live-in relationship as some kind of step toward marriage, and 62 percent of young adults believe cohabiting before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. Very few are cohabiting with no eye toward marriage. And these marriage-minded folks are either cohabiting as a test drive of a potential marriage or are cohabiting with Mr. or Mrs. I Don't Think So as a place holder until Mr. or Mrs. Right comes along.

But how wise of an idea is cohabitation? Is there a track record to examine? These are critical questions to ask because many millions of people are doing it and in dramatically increasing numbers.

Well, the good news is we don't have to wonder about strong, reliable answers to those questions. An absolute wealth of social science research by leading sociologists and demographers of the family are telling us much about the consequences of living together before marriage. Here are some of the most startling findings:

  • If couples want to dramatically boost their likelihood of divorcing once married, few things so widely practiced will ensure that than cohabiting. This is just the opposite of what most believe.
  • If women want to significantly increase their chances of being a victim of physical, sexual and verbal violence from their mate, cohabitation is what they are looking for. Men with rings on their fingers are dramatically less likely to be abusers of any sort.
  • If you want to learn poorer problem-solving, communication and negotiation skills in your relationship, cohabitation can help you there also. This is because the lowered sense of commitment and relational clarity causes live-in couples to practice and learn fewer healthy interactions.
  • If poverty appeals to you, cohabitation is more likely to put you there, compared to being married, even when both of you work full time. Marriage is a wealth building institution. Cohabitors are three times more likely to be in poverty compared to the married.
  • When it comes to keeping up the house, cohabiting men help out less with household chores than their married peers. Husbands pitch in up to eight hours a week more than their unwedded bros on things like toilet cleaning, vacuuming and mopping. And married guys complain less often about lending a hand with the cleaning.
  • Sophisticated research shows that men who cohabit before marriage become husbands who tend to be less committed to their wives, compared to husbands who did not cohabit. Cohabiting did not have this commitment-reducing impact on women. This means that women who cohabit are the greater losers in the deal, being more likely to be committed to men who do not return the favor.
  • In terms of getting out of a bad relationship, data shows that women might actually have a more difficult time leaving unhealthy cohabiting relationships than a dangerous marriage. This is because the woman tends to have less power, freedom and influence in a cohabiting relationship than in marriage. As a live-in girlfriend, her negotiating position in the relationship is weaker than a wife's position is.

Nearly all of us know someone who is cohabiting. Talking to them about the consequences is not being a moralizing busybody. It's showing deep concern and care for them because of what science reveals cohabitation does to our chances for strong, healthy, thriving long-term marriages.

It is unloving not to bring these truths to their attention. And that is why I wrote this book — to help people know what is more likely to help them achieve their deeply held relational goals — and what is not.

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  • Comment by  Phylicia:

    I heard you on the radio (90.1 Moody) yesterday regarding this topic! Definitely going to get the book. Thanks for this!

  • Comment by  Stephanie:

    Are there any explanations for why these statistics are as they are?

  • Comment by  Lee:

    Repeat after me:

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    This goes for people on BOTH sides of the argument.

  • Comment by  Corwin:

    @ Glenn:

    I'm wondering if you have looked at any studies suggesting that the risks you outline disappear for couples who live together only after being engaged (like this one:


    I'm not asking this to dispute anything you've said or defend living together before marriage. I'm just curious how you would respond to someone that argues living together after engagement is a good idea (because I have no idea how to respond to them!).

  • Comment by  Kelly1:

    This message needs to get out to the general public, because no one believes it.  

    And so often amongst my non-believing friends, the only ones who actually get to marriage are the ones who co-habit first.  They all seem happy enough now but I guess we'll see what happens over the next few years.

    Even last weekend, my friend who's been engaged for 10 years (that was her condition of moving in with him) finally walked down the aisle.  

  • Comment by  Arielle:

    you give science the credit behind cohabitation being a poor idea for those desiring marriages, but since this is a Christian blog, isn't it more of an issue to evangelize to them and rather than point to science as to why their marriage will probably fail, point to Christ as the solid, uniting force in marriage.

    It used to be the norm that people didn't have sex or live together before marriage (and if they did, they got shunned mostly), but that doesn't mean their marriages or lives were focused on the most important thing: God.

  • Comment by  Jen:

    This is all great to know and have in mind, but do you have any suggestions as to how to start/steer the conversation towards this *without* triggering someone's defensive walls?

  • Comment by  Sara:

    I'd like to repeat along with Lee #3 that it doesn't make sense for individuals to work backwards from statistics. Statistically, I'm probably Asian, but that fact doesn't make me any less of the North American that I am.

    I feel like you'd have a better argument if you could prove how a cohabiting environment makes otherwise strong couples falter.

  • Comment by  glenn:

    OK, some interesting comments here to respond to...

    Stephanie #2, Lee #3 and Sara #8 comments all seem to be related.

    There is no real debate in the literature on whether cohabitation is related to greater relational issues and dramatically increased risk of divorce. *The question is why.* There seems to be some good indication that the process of cohabiting can actually teach couples poorer relational skills and habits because of the ambiguity of and the differing valuing of the relationship by the two partners. I go into this in more detail in the book, but there does seem to be some causation effect for few reasons.

    It is an important and interesting question to address. I might write about it here in more detail in a subsequent post. Let me know if you would like that.

    Also, Corwin #5, yes I do address this issue in the book, of those couples who move in AFTER engagement. I read these studies carefully. This does not remove all the negative consequences of cohabitation, but it does seem to lessen them. There are logical reasons for this, which my book explains. It has to do with the nature of the engagement itself. Not just if the couple is engaged, per se, but if they are making plans and intentions toward marriage. This makes them a different kind of couple. Kelly #4's point is perfect here. Engaged for 10 years is not engaged. But a man whose mother-in-law to has ordered her wedding dress, the cake picked out, and a deposit put down on a reception hall is more on the hook than this guy who popped the question 8 years ago. Sociologists say these two kinds of relationships are very different than one another because the couple acts differently toward one another, as do the friends and extended family. The relationship has a clear future focus. But even these "we're making real plans" engaged cohabitaters still faces many serious problems.

    Engagement doesn't remove all the problems. The large lady hasn't sung yet, so to speak. The deal is not done. And many cohabiting engaged folks never get to the altar, which puts them in the general cohabited category, which is not a healthy category to be in, in terms of future relational prospects.

    Arielle #6, you seem to make the gnostic mistake of thinking that Christians have no real interest in science, but only in faith. I actually address this chapter 8 of the book because it is an important point. Can a good Christian book or blog make a scientific point and still be faithful?

    Yes. Christ is Lord of All. This means He is Lord of the natural order, which reveals His glory. Science, well-done, is reveals this as do other things. And this science on cohabitation reveals that beautifully. It is a very real sort of evangelism. To say that Christian should only concern themselves with the "spiritual" or "religious" part of life says Christ is only Lord of this stuff over here, the strictly religious.

  • Comment by  Chantel:

    Stephanie #2, that's a good question. I haven't looked into the statistics behind cohabitation that much, but I've found enough to convince that me that it is not beneficial. I don't remember all the reasons I found, but I know that one of them is that those who cohabit do not start out as committed.

  • Comment by  Chantel:

    #3, I agree with you. It isn't good to jump to conclusions but I'm sure you'd agree that there are times when correlation is definitely part of the cause. It's not just religious people who think that cohabiting is detrimental; many secular sources report the same thing.

  • Comment by  Lydia:

    I think that confounding occurs, because the people who still do get married, come from totally different backgrounds than the people who cohabit

    A man who cohabits, thinking 'I'm holding out for Mrs Right while enjoying being taken care for by my girlfriend' might be less likely to help out in household chores than a man who loves his girlfriend and commits to marriage!!

  • Comment by  Denise:

    good message, would love more grace in the delivery/ less sarcasm. :) totally understand that it's a message that needs to be hard-hitting, but it does come across as slightly argumentative and holier-than-thou. just my 2 cents.

  • Comment by  Tony:

    I think someone has to say this for the Christian front.  This question should only relate to unbelievers, as a Christian should never live in with his future spouse before married.  We are charged by God to not fornicate, which is impossible to resist if you live together.

    Though the sad thing is, there are people in my church who secretly live together, only to go through quite a hard time once they want to take premarital counseling at my church.  The first question the counselor asks is "are you living together?"  I went though it so I know, he was relieved to know we were living separately.

  • Comment by  Lock:

    Correlation does not equal causation.

    Actually, it may or may not; "does not" is incorrect.  

    What we're seeing is the rise of serial monogamy, of which cohabitation, short marriages or short-lived relationships are a part.  A few articles on that are are we seeing the rise of relationship quickies, is serial monogamy worth pursuing, and what is a serial monogamist?

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