This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 33, number 04 (2010). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
In 1987 I was a full-time student and part-time waiter, working alongside women and men of different beliefs and lifestyles. Most were non-Christians; some held to alternate spiritual views. But all were relational, living out their need for partnership in one way or another. Some were openly homosexual; others were uncommitted but sexually active and proud of it. Still others—many, in fact—lived with a girlfriend or boyfriend without any immediate plans for marriage.
I was a bit of an oddity. My fiancée and I were engaged to be married that summer, having abstained from sexual relations in anticipation of our wedding night. But we all got along, our differences going without comment until one night, while sitting together in the kitchen during a break, the talk turned to marriage.
“It’s just a piece of paper,” a waitress noted. Another one reminded us how many couples hate each other after a few years of marriage, concluding that it was stupid to embark on something that’s doomed from the beginning. Others concurred, the consensus being that living together made more sense than marriage, and that even if marriage was being considered, a “trial run” of cohabitation was essential to determine compatibility.
“Aren’t you engaged, Joe?” someone then asked, and all eyes turned to me, wondering how I was going to defend my jumping into an institution they’d just essentially trashed.
“Sure am,” I smiled, “and looking forward to being a husband.”
“That’s nice,” a waiter responded, regarding me the way one considers a quaint little relic. “But is it really necessary? Don’t you love each other with or without a ring?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “but we’re both looking for commitment, too.”
“We’re just as committed as you!” another waitress retorted, as though I’d just criticized her arrangement with her live-in boyfriend. “A ceremony and a license don’t make a commitment.”
“No,” I conceded, “they don’t. But they put teeth into it. And I guess it’s the teeth we’re looking for.”
How to Respond? Similar conversations are going on around the world, because living together, either as a prelude to marriage or a substitution for it, enjoys broadening acceptance. There’s been a gradual but remarkable shift in public opinion on the matter since unmarried men and women setting up house together were commonly referred to as “living in sin.” But with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s came both revision and rejection of countless mores, one of them being the need for chastity before marriage. Statistics bear this out: In 1960, there were 439,000 unmarried couples living together. Within twenty-four years, the count would leap to 1,988,000, mushrooming to 4,200,000 by 1998.1
And it’s no secret behavior we’re talking about here. Cohabitation is widely approved of, and nowhere is this approval more marked than among younger citizens. Surveys show a majority of high school students, for example, approve of the arrangement2 with conventional secular wisdom concurring. Dr. Joyce Brothers, widely regarded as a relational expert, declared “I wouldn’t dream of marrying someone I hadn’t lived with. That’s like buying shoes you haven’t tried on.”3 Indeed, researchers David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the National Marriage Project wrote that “when blushing brides walk down the aisle, more than half have already lived together with a boyfriend.”4
All of which leaves a Christian pondering what to say to friends living as non-married partners. Clearly sexual sin within the church is cause for discipline, but if someone is not a Christian, is it our place to comment on his or her lifestyle?
Besides, isn’t the real issue their salvation, rather than their living arrangement? Jesus Himself, when dialoguing with a Samaritan woman who lived with a man, acknowledged her situation without preaching to her on the wrongness of sex before marriage (John 4:16–18). So when relating to couples living together apart from marriage, how should we respond?
First, let’s remember that if God has revealed useful truths about human nature, then presenting those truths makes sense. Secondly, a discussion of Christian principles can lead to a deeper talk about the One who established those principles, and how one comes to know Him. So the biblical concepts of marriage and family, while useful in and of themselves, can also be tools for evangelism.
This will, of course, necessitate a critique of any number of sexual behaviors outside of marriage, cohabiting included. And an intelligent criticism of a practice should include evidence that it doesn’t work, and an explanation of why it doesn’t. We’re challenged, then, to explain both how and why cohabitation doesn’t work. The following criticism, drawn primarily from secular studies and biblical teaching, will address both.
How Cohabitation Doesn’t Work. There are three primary reasons we conclude that couples living together before marriage set themselves up for disappointment.
First, research shows that cohabiting couples who live together as a prelude to marriage are fifty percent more likely to divorce than noncohabiters.5
Second, people who have had a number of live-in relationships are less likely to marry the person they live with, and are also less likely to find permanence in marriage later in life, according to studies by Columbia University and the National Survey of Families and Households,6 both of which found that only twenty-six percent of women surveyed and nineteen percent of men married the person with whom they were cohabiting, while about forty percent of cohabiting unions in the U.S. break up without the couple getting married.
Third, rates of domestic abuse and child abuse are both higher among unmarried, live-in couples than among married couples.7
Popenoe and Whitehead sum it up boldly when, reviewing their findings, they conclude, “Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage. Living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence for women, and the risk of physical and sexual abuse of children. Unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness and well being than married couples.”8
None of which implies that people who live together apart from marriage cannot to some degree be happy, fulfilled, and functional. Rather, we would argue that their level of happiness, fulfillment, and functioning are likely to be higher apart from cohabitation and within the safety of marriage.
Why Cohabitation Doesn’t Work. That leaves us with the broader question of why marriage makes such a difference. And here we can point confidently to our Creator’s full understanding of human need. God’s first critical statement about man came when He noted it was “not good for man to be alone.”
The need for loving partnership is primary, universal, and inarguable. Whatever arrangement best meets that need should be promoted; arrangements less effective should be recognized as such—not necessarily evil or destructive, but less able to answer the heart’s cry.
But in this imperfect world, when human need meets human limitations, the heartache begins. So our need for unending love is frustrated by the reality that at some point, the most ardent of couples tire of each other. We’re inevitably disillusioned with our partner, discovering things about her/him we didn’t anticipate, or becoming weary with character flaws that were, during our courtship, minor irritants, but have now morphed into major transgressions. Fights ensue, wounds are inflicted, and most couples will, if they’re brutally honest, admit to reaching points at which they regret ever forming their relationship.
Without a strong covenant, publicly enacted and pledged to with legal and moral strings firmly attached, it’s easier to bail when things get tough. And that’s exactly why formalized marriage is essential. We need permanent commitment from our partner to be truly emotionally safe, and we need the discipline of staying within that commitment, even when we’d rather exit it, for our own maturity and strength. Without it, we rely on love to keep the relationship intact. With it, marriage keeps the love intact, with terms and boundaries not subject to changing emotions.
In fact, oddly enough in these “who cares if you’re married?” times, isn’t it ironic to consider that a line from one of pop music’s most recent hits is, “If you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”
That’s because, even apart from Christianity, people innately know that when marriage is done right, everyone wins.
Everyone works, too, because marriage is as hard as it is wonderful. Jesus noted this when He taught His followers that, despite the lax justifications for divorce they were accustomed to, it was unlawful to put away a wife except for adultery. His disciples said, “If such is the case it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Indeed, at times the easy exit of a live-in relationship looks appealing in contrast to the consistency and sacrifice marriage demands. A power greater than ourselves is needed.
And there’s the crux of the matter. Marriage invites us to an institution meeting our deepest needs, while requiring of us strength of character we do not always have, thus driving us to the source of the power we lack. When witnessing about the value of marriage to cohabiting friends, we’re also commending the power of God to keep marriage intact.
“So you’re wide-eyed in love now, Joe,” one of my waiter friends observed during that kitchen conversation two decades ago. “But can you handle it when it gets rough?”
“On my own, no,” I admitted. “But someone once said, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ Let me explain….”
Joe Dallas is the program director of Genesis Counseling in Tustin, California, a Christian counseling service to men dealing with sexual addiction, homosexuality, and other sexual/relational problems. He is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and is the author of three books on human sexuality, including Desires in Conflict (Harvest House, 1991) and A Strong Delusion (Harvest House, 1996).
- Joseph M. Champlin, “Co-habitation before Marriage,” American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0603.asp.
- J. G. Bachman, L. D. Johnston, and P. M. O’Malley, Monitoring the Future: Questionnaire Responses from the Nation’s High School Seniors (Ann Arbor, MI: Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, 1995).
- David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Should We Live Together?” Smart Marriages, http://www.smartmarriages.com/cohabit.html.
- “Sociological Reasons Not to Live Together,” Leadership U, http://www.leaderu.com/critical/cohabitation-socio.html.
- Jan E. Stets, “Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: The Role of Social Isolation,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (1991): 669–80.
- Popenoe and Whitehead.