AT 32, one of my clients (I’ll call her Jennifer) had a lavish wine-country wedding. By then, Jennifer and her boyfriend had lived together for more than four years. The event was attended by the couple’s friends, families and two dogs.
When Jennifer started therapy with me less than a year later, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married,” she sobbed. Most disheartening to Jennifer was that she’d tried to do everything right. “My parents got married young so, of course, they got divorced. We lived together! How did this happen?”
Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis.
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.
That’s a nice idea – wanting protection against divorce. If you asked me, I would tell you that courting is protection against a bad marriage. And the aim of courting is to interrogate and stress the other person so that you can see whether they understand the demands of the marriage and their duties to their spouse and children. In particular, men should investigate whether the woman has prepared to perform her roles as wife and mother, and women should investigate whether the man has prepared to perform his roles as protector, provider and moral/spiritual leader. Courting is not fun. It is not meant to make people feel happy. And this is because you cannot translate fun and happy into marriage, because marriage is about well-defined roles, self-sacrifice and commitment. Marriage is about following through for the other person, whether you get what you want or not.
Cohabitation is particularly stupid because what it says is that sex is not to be confined to marriage, but it is instead for recreational purposes outside of marriage. If men and women cannot demonstrate that they are capable of self-control prior to marrying by functioning in a relationship based on commitment and not based on pleasure, then they are not qualified for marriage. And that’s why cohabitation is associated with higher risks of divorce – because thinking that relationships are recreational is inconsistent with a life-long self-sacrificial commitment. Research has shown that pre-marital chastity produces more stable and higher quality marriages. And that’s because chastity helps people to focus on conversations and obligations instead of recreational sex which clouds the judgment and glosses over the seriousness of marriage.
Now look, the key to the difference between courtship and cohabitation is right in the article. You guys know about my
evil ten questions to scare fake Christian women away ten questions to test Christian women for marriage, right? Those questions are designed to weed out women who are not interested in marriage as a commitment to serve God, regardless of whether it makes them happy or not. By making the woman work to prove herself in the courtship, the man is able to lead her to see that marriage is not some fairy tale of bliss where she will get her own way all the time. Those ten questions, if acted on by the woman, will clearly drive into her mind the idea that marriage is about her caring about her husband and children as a way of serving God. This sort of deliberate questioning is a reality check to women who think that peer-approval of the boyfriend and great sex and happy feelings and a big expensive wedding are all predictors of marital stability. That’s a popular delusion that is unsupported by research.
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.
Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.
As Jennifer and I worked to answer her question, “How did this happen?” we talked about how she and her boyfriend went from dating to cohabiting. Her response was consistent with studies reporting that most couples say it “just happened.”
“We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,” she said. “We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.”
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.
The problem with young people today is that they want marriage as “a blissful state where I will get whatever I want without having to do anything, and where I am free from the consequences of my own selfishness”. They don’t want marriage as commitment, moral obligations, serving others and self-sacrifice. By avoiding conversations about who will do what, and what needs doing, they can fool themselves by thinking that happy sex and happy drinking and happy dancing will naturally turn into happy marriage. As if marriage is just an extension of drinking, friends and dancing, and nothing more. I once asked a woman to give me her vision of marriage and she literally said that it would be having her friends over to drink wine and dance around. They want happiness, they think marriage is a path to happiness, and that cohabitation will lead to marriage without the nasty work of having to answer questions and perform duties during a formal courtship. They don’t want the work. They don’t want the questions. They don’t want the obligations. They don’t want the self-sacrifice.
And that’s why I encourage men to very gently and subtly guide the relationship in a way that will allow the woman to demonstrate her seriousness about marriage as marriage – the real marriage of self-sacrifice and commitment and serving God – instead of letting the relationship be about avoiding difficult conversations and just drifting from fun to happy and back again. Marriage is a job, and you need to be prepared to hold up your end of it, and to make sure that your partner is able to hold up their end.