The Cohabitational Effect

Yesterday, I taught on Letting Marriage Be Held in Honor from Hebrews 13:4.  If you want to hear that message, visit our audio page here.

One area I didn’t cover I want to talk a little about here because it deals with one of the most prevalent practices in modern Western culture: Cohabitating.

OK, just turned a large segment of the population away right there.  That’s cool. For the two of your who do choose to finish reading this, I do want to say that I’m not approaching this from a moralistic perspective or even, necessarily, a biblical one right now.  I want to share some scientific info that you should at least have so that you can make informed decisions in your “present” that are going to inevitably affect your future.

This past week, I read an article that raised the question of the benefits of cohabitating before (or instead of) marriage.  The author raised a very valid question: If we think it is beneficial to try out all types of merchandise before we make a commitment (e.g. cars, computers, clothes, etc), wouldn’t it make even more sense to “test drive” a relationship prior to making something as important as a life commitment? 

OK, Biblical instructions aside on why that’s a bad idea (and there are a lot on the subject), I think that makes sense.  Yeah, I said it…it makes sense.  It seems pretty logical, at least if you’re hoping to stay with that individual for the rest of your life.  I get why many young adults would see that.  One problem: it doesn’t appear to hold up to statistical evidence to the contrary.

Glenn T. Stanton, the author of the article, Cohabitation & divorce — there is a correlation, points out that there is a “Grand Canyon sized chasm between what many young adults believe and the proven reality of their experience.”  He points out that there is “a massive body of robust, diverse and conclusive scientific research on this question that leaves no doubt about whether cohabitating is helpful to marriage.” 

Here is a sampling of what sociologists from the Universities of Chicago and Michigan (two leading schools of Sociology) report in an excerpt from Stanton’s article:

[T]he “expectation of a positive relationship between cohabitation and marital stability … has been shattered in recent years by studies conducted in several Western countries, including Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, and the United States.”

Their data indicates that people with cohabiting experience who marry have a 50 to 80 percent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited. A Canadian sociologist explains:

“Contrary to conventional wisdom that living together before marriage will screen out poor matches and therefore improve subsequent marital stability, there is considerable empirical evidence demonstrating that premarital cohabitation is associated with lowered marital stability.”

Stanton goes on to say that “if couples wanted to substantially increase their likelihood of divorcing, there are few things they could do to so efficiently guarantee such an outcome than live together before marriage. In fact, this is such a consistent finding in the social science research that scholars have coined a term for it: “the cohabitational effect.”

It makes sense, really, and those of us who have been married for any real length of time can vouch for the logic.  The article explains it like this: 

This finding has become a truism partly because the process of cohabiting itself is shown to influence couples to learn to communicate, negotiate and settle differences in ways that are less healthy and honest than do couples who didn’t cohabit before marriage. This is probably because without a clearly defined relationship, the cohabiting couple can learn to be more controlling and manipulative with each other. And this leads to relational resentment and mistrust.

Further studies showed that between married couples who cohabitated compared with those who did not, those who had lived together experienced a greater likelihood of “aggression and negative interactions and were more likely to face divorce” while those who had not cohabitated experienced more “overtly positive interactions and…more positive communications.”

Now, all of this can be followed up with one pastoral point (since, after all, I am one of those guys): It makes sense that if God created man and woman, as the Bible says He did, and if He gave guidelines as to how things should function (much like any other set of instructions), doesn’t it make sense that things are probably not going to work out very well if those instructions are not followed?  Doesn’t it seem reasonable that God may choose not to watch over and take care of those relationships that snub their noses at Him and His guidelines? 

Honestly, I don’t have to argue this point. Just look around. Evidence is everywhere.  Check the divorce rates; the abortion rates; the depression, suicides, substance abuse and on and on.  Are there examples of Christians who mess things up?  Absolutely.  The reality is there are a bunch of messed up people inside and outside of the church (which is why we all need a Savior), but that doesn’t discount the fact that there are millions of couples who’ve followed the instructions, taken God at His Word, and are living very happy married lives with less grief, less heart-ache, less guilt and less frustration.  Heck, many of the people who fill up churches are there because they made some of these same mistakes and are trying to overcome the consequences of their pasts while charting a new course for their futures.

Alright, so let me wrap up by making one thing as clear here as I can: This post is in no way an effort to call for a moral clean-up in order to “take America back!”  This is just one dude’s effort to point out how personally destructive our choices can be and ask you to just consider that maybe, just maybe, choosing to “feed the need” now is going to bring a whole world of hurt in the future.

You can’t afford to get this wrong.