Is cohabitation a better way to prepare for marriage than courting?

Painting: "Courtship", by Edmund Blair Leighton (1888)
Painting: “Courtship”, by Edmund Blair Leighton (1888)

Consider this assessment of cohabitation from the liberal New York Times.


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. But I think these hopeful attitudes that young people have about cohabitation and the utility / harmlessness of premarital sex, is so much whistling past the graveyard. The fact is that cohabitation does not improve marital stability.

The New York Times author assesses the evidence about cohabitation:

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.

Cohabitation is associated with higher risks of divorce because it works to undermine the need for quality communication during courting and the need for commitment that is based on discipline, instead of pleasure. People slide into something that looks like marriage because the sex pulls them in. But they’ve never taken the time to talk about what the relationship is really about, and whether they are intending to commit to the other person for life, and on what terms, and for what reason. Young people find these conversations difficult and scary for a reason – they are not capable of discussing relationships in terms of self-sacrifice, self-control, and self-denial.

The focus on early sex is caused by a focus on wanting to get to pleasure right away. They want relationships to be like a consumer good, where they get their needs met without having to talk about suitability for roles, and acceptance of responsibilities and obligations. In my experience, young people are terrified of the responsibilities, obligations and expectations of a real commitment. They want relationships to be free,easy and fun – where they just get to do whatever they feel like, moment by moment. And somehow, it’s all supposed to work out, without anyone talking seriously about roles and responsibilities and commitment.

But of course that doesn’t work as well as keeping your distance and getting to know each other first. It’s not just compatibility that is important, though – it’s that both people need to prepare for the roles and responsibilities they will have in a marriage, and demonstrate to each other that each is capable of performing those roles.

What’s the answer?

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 the recreational sex which clouds the judgment and glosses over the seriousness of marriage. Premarital sex rushes the relationship to the point where it is harder to break it off because of the sunk costs of sex and the pain of the break-up. Courtship is the time to discuss the things that break up marriages, like finances and division of labor. It is the time to demonstrate self-control and fidelity. Courting doesn’t allow either person to get control of the relationship through sex, so that they can get their needs met without having to care about the other person. When sex is ruled off the table, the only way to have the relationship go on is by serving the other person and showing them that you have what it takes to do the marriage role you’re assigned. That’s hard work, but young people need to accept that and get on with preparing for and practicing their marriage responsibilities.

Why not go back to courting?

If you asked me, I would tell you that courting is protection against a painful break-up as well as protection against a bad marriage. And the aim of courting is to interview the other person so that you can see whether they understand the demands of the marriage and whether they can perform their duties to their spouse and children. In particular, men should investigate whether the woman has prepared (or is willing to prepare now) 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 (or is willing to prepare now). Courting is not designed to be fun, although it can be fun. It is not meant to make people feel happy, it is mean to prepare them for marriage. 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. You’d be surprised how often people give up on courting and show that their real goal for a relationship is not lifelong self-sacrificial love at all, but just using other people for their own happiness while they keep their distance from the responsibilities, obligations and expectations of the marriage covenant.

And that’s why I encourage men to very gently and subtly guide the relationship in a way that will allow both the woman and the man to practice their expected marital duties, see how they feel about their duties and get better at being able to perform them. Men have the most to lose from the divorce courts, if things go south. That’s why it is the man’s the responsibility to detect and reject women who are only interested in fun and thrills.

3 thoughts on “Is cohabitation a better way to prepare for marriage than courting?”

  1. From experience, I encourage every single male and female (Christian or non-Christian) to not cohabitate before marriage (although I did, and my marriage is working out fine, there were times when I wanted to leave and never come back in the first few months that we lived together. I had no spiritual foundation or moral obligation encouraging me to stay. However, I did know or feel that if I moved back out, then the relationship would’ve been over).

  2. IMHO, the focus on the future of the relationship needs to be there whether cohabiting or courting, celibate or not. Jon and I are not completely traditional in our lives, but we also understand the importance of underlying traditionalism to any culture: you can be a metalhead, irreligious, borderline nihilistic, disregard marriage, be asocial and still live well and happily as a couple provided you acknowledge that higher powers, future goals, children, financial stability and monogamy need to be agreed on to make the relationship work. The importance of the traditional element is not so much in the details as in the overarching realities of life.

    For us, that meant around five or six months of being friends, then dating, without sexual contact, to determine whether the other one was just a good friend or worth spending a life with. Once that decision was made, then came sex, then engagement, then cohabitation, then marriage. A jumble by anyone’s “perfect relationship path” outline, but it worked because we made sure we were on the same page before progressing beyond friendly interaction. And yes, it took us both many years to find someone who aligned with our views and was willing to wait through the first few sexless months, but the end result is that we found each other.

    Or maybe it just goes to show that even brief spans of celibacy in dating, even as little as a month in some cases, chases away anyone who isn’t completely devoted to a life with you. After all, if they’re still there and interested after six months without sex, and you’re still interested in them, there has to bean underlying compatibility.

  3. Personal background: When I met my husband, I was an agnostic and a virgin. I fell for him as we talked over mugs of coffee. He was an atheist and had had several sexual relationships (I didn’t know that then), so he seduced me when he realised my feelings. I had remained a virgin by telling guys that I didn’t want to risk falling pregnant, but this one provided condoms and I didn’t know how or why to say no. Our relationship was mostly physical, based on lust. We ended up cohabiting for over 3 years before we got married. A few years later I realised how much I had lost my moral compass and that our sexual licence would destroy our marriage.
    Later, after having children, I came to know the Lord. This caused a rift in our relationship. A few years later, I heard Howard Hendricks talk about parents needing to be reading off the same page, so afterwards I told him my situation. He pointed out that I was the one who had changed, not my husband, and I basically had to live with the situation, which was cold comfort! It was only some 12 years later that my husband and I reached a truce after I delivered a “tough love” ultimatum (long story). We are still together, but our relationship has become essentially platonic. My husband is still an atheist.

    From my experience plus observation, one of the major problems is that people do not know how to choose a suitable spouse, nor how build a healthy, stable relationship. While some “chemistry” is necessary, most are based on physical attraction and lust, which is superficial and eventually wears off if there is no deeper connection. If they cannot talk more deeply about their relationship, it will remain superficial.
    A couple needs to have at least some interests in common that they can do together (we do have a couple, but otherwise pursue our own interests).
    Another major problem is where people are self-centred and they only think of themselves and their wants. It takes two psychologically and emotionally whole people to build a healthy marriage. Unconditional love means accepting a person as they are.
    While I do not advocate pre-marital sex or cohabitation (in fact, my own experience prompted me to be involved in evangelising and teaching children moral values), the success of a relationship depends mostly on the people involved, whether they have unresolved/ buried issues (which can cause serious problems when they manifest), whether they are self-centred or love their spouse unconditionally and are in it for the long haul.
    Sorry, this ended up longer than intended!

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