Based on a sample of 2,737 respondents, Musick and Bumpass (2012, 1) found that the change in “a range of measures tapping psychological well- being, health, and social ties” is similar in cohabiting and marriage relationships. They conclude, “Overall, differences tend to be small and appear to dissipate over time, when the greater instability of cohabitation is taken into account.”
The National Center for Health Statistics reported evidence from the National Survey of Family Growth (from a sampling of nearly 13,000 people) that the differences in marital adjustment and outcome between married persons who had and who had not cohabited is small (Jayson 2010).
Rosenfeld and Roesler (2019) conducted one of the largest studies on cohabitation before marriage. This study is based on six waves of data from the National Surveys of Family Growth. The data from this study are representative of individuals throughout the United States from 1970 until 2015. For women in this study, the rate of cohabiting with the man they
eventually married was 11 percent in 1970. By 2015, the rate was 70 percent, indicating the growing popularity of cohabiting. In more positive terms, this study indicates that couples who cohabited before marriage have higher satisfaction scales compared with couples that do not cohabit. However, these gains are also maintained among couples who cohabit and do not marry. This suggests that premarital cohabiting allows couples to learn how to negotiate conflict and adjust to living together compared with noncohabiting couples who do not have that opportunity. The long-term effects of cohabitation prior to marriage are more negative (i.e., associated with marital dissolution).
As the above discussion demonstrates, some of the research is mixed on the overall negative effects of cohabiting on marriages. There are important factors to keep in mind as a couple transitions from cohabitation to marriage. Care must be taken to resist the assumption of a strong causal relationship between cohabitation and marital failure. Viewing the connection between cohabitation and relationship dissolution as the death knell of a relationship may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Factors to take into account include the following: the degree of commitment; valuing and making marriage and family life a priority; communication and conflict-resolution life skills, recognizing marital expectations, and developing a differentiated unity; making joint decisions about children, roles, and careers; and being involved in an extended family and/or faith community that supports and encourages covenant vows.
How Does Cohabitation Impact Children? Thinking beyond the pros and cons of premarital cohabitation for a couple,
we now consider how children are impacted. Heuveline and Timberlake (2004) cite studies estimating that between 25 and 40 percent of all children spend some time in a cohabiting arrangement. Brown et al. (2006) report that when compared to children growing up with married couples, children growing up with cohabiting couples tend to have worse life outcomes. Since cohabiting parents break up at a much higher rate than married parents, the impact of cohabiting on children can be devastating.
Aronson (2004) finds that among mothers with infants, those in cohabiting relationships tend to fare far worse economically than married mothers. Popenoe and Whitehead (2005) point to evidence of higher risk of sexual abuse and physical violence among children in cohabiting unions. DeLeire
and Kalil (2005, 286) report the rather sobering finding that “cohabiting- parent families, compared to married-parent families, spend a greater amount on two adult goods (alcohol and tobacco) and a smaller amount on education.” The implications are that cohabiting parents invest less in the welfare of their children than married parents do.
In a study of 2,160 families, Schmeer (2011, 181) reports “worse health for children born to cohabiting parents . . . than for children with stable married parents.” In addition, it seems that stable cohabitation is no better for child health than cohabitation dissolution, and a child’s health is better among the cohabiting parents who marry than for those who do not marry.
Sociologists David Popenoe and Barbara Whitehead (2003, 2004, 2005) at Rutgers University have completed a comprehensive review of research on cohabitation before marriage in their yearly report on the state of marriage in the United States. They caution young adults to think twice about cohabiting prior to marriage, offering the following four principles. First, consider not living together at all before marriage, since there is no evidence to support the view that cohabiting will result in a stronger marriage. The evidence, they suggest, shows that living together before marriage increases the chance of divorcing after marriage. The exception may be for those couples who are committed to marriage, have formally announced their engagement, and have chosen a wedding date.
The second principle is don’t make a habit of cohabiting. They see the evidence as refuting the popular myth that persons learn to develop better relationships from a number of failed cohabiting relationships. Rather, multiple cohabitation is repeatedly found to be a strong predictor of the failure of future relationships.
The third principle is limit cohabitation to the shortest possible period of time. The intent and spirit of this advice is based on their conclusion that the longer one lives together with a partner, the more likely it is that the low- commitment ethic of cohabitation will take hold. Participation in a cohabiting relationship can have an eroding effect not only on the participants’ view of the importance of commitment but also on societal ethics, which value unconditional commitment as a basis for marriage and family life.
The fourth principle is don’t cohabit when children are involved. The spirit of this principle is based on the value that children need and should have parents who are committed to staying together for them.
While Popenoe and Whitehead write as social scientists, not as advocates for a Christian view of marriage, their advice certainly comports well with the biblical wisdom that marriage is to be based on lifelong covenant commitments. Those who make a marital covenant with their partner will have a better chance for stability and happiness than those who merely slide into marriage through default.
A Christian Perspective on Cohabitation A Christian response to cohabitation needs to be pastoral in intent,
understanding three important things: sin or violation of God’s ordinances is serious; there is a difference between understanding sin and its effects and living with sinners; and we are all sinners. Our discussion thus far has been on the theoretical and empirical evidence related to cohabitation. But Christians must go further, acknowledging that cohabitation is not God’s sexual standard for relationships. Committed to this standard, we seek to exude grace when dealing with others. Given that many congregants may be living in cohabiting relationships, how can pastors come alongside and support congregants and families in this family arrangement? In this pastoral posture, we organize our response around four questions: (1) What is the nature of commitment in cohabiting relationships? (2) When are two people married in the sight of God? (3) Is cohabitation a threat to the institution of marriage? (4) How should the church respond to cohabiting couples?
WHAT IS THE NATURE OF COMMITMENT IN COHAB ITING
RELATIONSHIPS? The prominent reasons people enter cohabiting relationships include love,
companionship, sexual exclusivity, economics, ambivalence toward marriage, loneliness, and peer pressure. Whereas many of these are understandable reasons for living with a companion, the critical missing piece is commitment. Knowing that there is a conditional, reciprocal relationship adds a level of instability to cohabiting relationships. A conditional relationship is inherently less stable than a covenant relationship because the commitment is on a trial basis. Cohabiting partners are ambivalent toward vowing before God to commit themselves to each other for a lifetime. This impermanence brings more anxiety to the relationship,
making daily life more uncertain and adding a level of worry to conflict negotiation.
The biblical concept of a “one-flesh union” blessed by God is the essential missing piece in a cohabiting arrangement. Whereas an exclusive sexual union is an important aspect of cohabitation, just as it is in marriage, covenant provides an enduring, ongoing, faithful commitment through all aspects of married life. It is hesed (“steadfast love” or “loyalty,” a Hebrew word often used to describe covenant commitment) that promises faithful giving of oneself to the other and keeping the best interest of the other in mind “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and till death do us part.” The model of unconditional covenant commitment is a scriptural ideal for marriage.
The cohabiting couple may have a difficult time grasping the value of covenant love. Independence instead of mutual interdependence limits the deepest possibilities of acceptance, empowerment, and intimacy. When partners are uncertain about permanent commitment, they are prone to keep some distance and protect themselves rather than open up in vulnerable ways to one another. A relationship of reluctance, a fear of becoming too attached, puts emotional barriers up rather than breaking them down. Thus, one of the biggest problems with cohabitation is that it can inhibit deeper levels of personal sharing and knowing. Holding oneself back limits growth through mutual empowerment in the relationship and keeps partners from developing the deepest capacity for intimacy and loving.
It takes courage to know oneself and then reveal that self to a partner. A clarified sense of self allows a partner to surrender in self-giving ways. The “forever” covenant commitment provides a capacity to share without fear. Differentiation gives partners freedom to express personal longings and fears as well as respond to the partner’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires. Communicating covenant love through thought and action, regardless of obvious flaws and failures, means partners are able to be “naked and not ashamed.” There is no longer a need to protect oneself from a deeper attachment. Grace-filled love gives partners the courage to risk letting themselves be known. Covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy are the essential ingredients of a committed relationship.