Focus on the Family

Test-Driving Marriage

by Focus on the Family

No strings attached. Test-driving a relationship by sharing living quarters appears to be the perfect solution. If it works out, great! If not, no harm done.

Or so you thought.

Damage does occur when couples choose to live together. Marriage cements love with a commitment. Living together leaves you vulnerable, causing you to doubt the level of your partner's dedication.

Studies show that couples who live together before marrying have a higher tendency to divorce. It seems the short-term commitment of living together often equals short-term commitment in marriage.

If you're not ready to get married, do you really think you're ready to live together?


The Problem With Living Together

No one can simulate self-giving. Half a commitment is no commitment.

by Jennifer Roback Morse

The Census reports a 72 percent increase in the number of cohabiting couples since 1990. Unfortunately, research shows that cohabitation is correlated with greater likelihood of unhappiness, and domestic violence in the relationship. Cohabiting couple report lower levels of satisfaction in the relationship than married couples. Women are more likely to be abused by a cohabiting boyfriend than a husband. Children are more likely to abused by their mothers' boyfriends than by her husband, even if the boyfriend is their biological father. If a cohabiting couple ultimately marries, they tend to report lower levels of marital satisfaction and a higher propensity to divorce.

Recent reports and commentaries on cohabitation tend to downplay these difficulties. I suspect this is because people do not know how to make sense of the research findings. Many people imagine that living together before marriage resembles taking a car for a test drive. The "trial period" gives people a chance to discover whether they are compatible. This analogy seems so compelling that people are unable to interpret the mountains of data to the contrary.

Here's the problem with the car analogy: the car doesn't have hurt feelings if the driver dumps it back at the used car lot and decides not to buy it. The analogy works great if you picture yourself as the driver. It stinks if you picture yourself as the car.

The contract or consent approach doesn't really help much either. Living together is fine as long as both people agree to it. The agreement amounts to this: "I am willing to let you use me as if I were a commodity, as long as you allow me to treat you as if you were a commodity." But this is a bogus agreement. We can say at the outset that we agree to be the "man of steel", but no one can credibly promise to have no feelings of remorse if the relationship fails.

All of this points to the essential difference between sexual activity and other forms of activity. Giving oneself to a sexual partner is, by its nature, a gift of oneself to another person. We all have a deep longing to be cherished by the person we have sex with. That longing is not fooled by our pretensions to sophistication.

Here is an analogy that works better than the taking the car for a test drive analogy. Suppose I ask you to give me a blank check, signed and ready to cash. All I have to do is fill in the amount. Most people would be unlikely to do this. You would be more likely to do it, if you snuck out and drained the money out of your account before you gave me the check. Or, you could give me the check and just be scared and worried about what I might do.

Think about it: What do you have in your checking account that is more valuable than what you give to a sexual partner? When people live together, and sleep together, without marriage, they put themselves in a position that is similar to the person being asked to give a blank check. They either hold back on their partner by not giving the full self in the sexual act and in their shared lives together. Or, they feel scared a lot of the time, wondering whether their partner will somehow take advantage of their vulnerability.

No one can simulate self-giving. Half a commitment is no commitment. Cohabiting couples are likely to have one foot out the door, throughout the relationship. The members of a cohabiting couple practice holding back on one another. They rehearse not trusting. The social scientists that gather the data do not have an easy way to measure this kind of dynamic inside the relationship.

In my view, this accounts for the disappointing results of cohabitation. I am sorry to say that I learned this from experience. My husband and I lived together before we were married. It took us a long time to unlearn the habits of the heart that we built up during those cohabiting years.

The sexual revolution promised a humane and realistic approach to human sexuality. Ironically, the uncommitted-sex mentality has proven to underestimate both the value and the power of sexual activity. Lifelong, committed marriages are difficult, no doubt about it. But self-giving loving relationships still have the best chance of making us happy.


Cohabitation as a Means to Marriage

One of the biggest reasons why marriage is more successful than cohabitation is commitment.

by Amy Tracy

Al and Alicia just celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary. When they met, Alicia was a brand new believer, and Al was a non-Christian. They became intimate almost immediately and lived together for a time before getting married.

"We slept together on the second date," said Alicia. "There was no hesitation; it just seemed like what you do."

"We never articulated sex as bad because we were not married," said Al. "So it was perplexing to me why Alicia felt the way she did. There was this deep sadness in her, and she'd cry during intimate times. On my part, it took me a long time to figure out how to be in a sexual relationship that didn't involve objectification. So on the one hand, Alicia is experiencing tremendous regret, emptiness and scarring. And I have totally different expectations. I was this guy that had to learn it wasn't about having fun sex all of the time."

Alicia and Al spoke of the difficulties in their relationship, and how they eventually carried those into marriage.

"It's a miracle we made it through those first years," said Alicia. "We were on a different page for so long; it took me time to work through memories and the choices I made pre-marriage.

The Effects of Cohabitation

The experience Al and Alicia had is all too common of cohabitating relationships. According to The National Marriage Project, an estimated half of all couples now cohabitate before they marry. The fact that Al and Alicia married at all, and are still together, is a testament to their vibrant faith in Christ.

Unfortunately, many couples don't fare the same. In fact, study after study shows that cohabitation is linked to poorer marital communication, lower marital satisfaction, higher levels of domestic violence and a greater chance of divorce.

Young people today are cynical concerning the validity and longevity of the marital union. Indeed, with fifty percent of all marriages ending in divorce, men and women believe it's a good idea to try out different partners.

"Couples say that they need to kick the tires a little before settling down," says Dr. Brad Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and director of the Marriage Matters Project. "But what they don't understand is that once you adopt a consumer mentality, you undercut marriage and open yourself up to marital breakup and unhappiness."

This assertion is backed up by plenty of research, including a 2002 report issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics that states, "The probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce within 5 years is 20 percent while the probability of a premarital cohabitation breaking up within 5 years is 49 percent. After 10 years, the probability of a first marriage ending is 33 percent, compared with 62 percent for cohabitation."

The Importance of Commitment

One of the biggest reasons why marriage is more successful than cohabitation is commitment. With marriage you make a pledge before God, your family and friends. Everyone knows you're married; it's a public declaration. In marriage, you're more likely to make sacrifices for your mate and to strive to make the relationship work. Additionally, divorce is costly, both emotionally and financially. By its very nature, cohabitation encourages a lack of commitment and independence, and is an easy out for the partner that wants to pack a suitcase and leave.

According to Dr. Scott Stanley, a professor of Family and Marital Studies at the University of Denver, another reason to avoid cohabitation is what he calls "relationship inertia."

"People who are cohabiting might end up marrying somebody they might not otherwise have married," he says. In essence they're "sliding, not deciding."

Dr. Wilcox says that young men and women today think about marriage as the "Cadillac of relationships."

"They want everything established including the perfect relationship, house and income," he says. "Thirty years ago, someone cohabitated with a future spouse and were married within six months. Now, men and women are having more relationships and becoming habituated to starting intimate relationships, breaking up and starting over. It's setting up a pattern of failure and not preparing them for a lifelong relationship."

Cohabitation and habitual cohabitation not only involves fornication (Hebrews 13:4), which violates Scripture, but it also gives your heart away to someone that God has not joined with you. Indeed, we are admonished, "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23).

Alicia and Al now have three young boys and a thriving relationship.

"Marriage would have been a tremendous event in our life had we waited and done things the right way," said Al. "For me, that's the biggest loss."

"Getting married was like coming into this safe place suddenly," said Alicia. "As a woman, most men look at you as something to be desired. Then I got married, and I had a safe place to be still and process."


Ending the Test-Drive

What do you do if you're convinced that living together was a bad idea, after all?

by Brad Lewis

Whether you call it "test-driving marriage," "living together," "shacking up" or "living in sin," cohabitation is on the rise. Sadly, so are the consequences of sharing a home without the commitment of marriage.

Try as you may, it's not easy to defend cohabiting as "just the same as marriage." The following myths and truths paint a compelling picture.

Myth: "This is just temporary. We'll be getting married when we feel ready."

Truth: Only 30 percent of couples who live together actually get married. 1

Myth: "We want to try each other out. We'll have a better chance of staying married if we live together first."

Truth: The dissolution rate for couples who lived together before marriage is 80 percent higher than it is for couples who didn't. 2

Myth: "We'll get along better once we're married."

Truth: Thirty-five out of 100 couples living together experienced a physical assault in a 12-month period; that's more than double the rate of violence among married couples, which is 15 out of 100.3 The top three problems for couples who live together before marriage are: drunkenness, adultery and drug abuse.4

Myth: "We just want to get a head start on our finances before we get married."

Truth: Men who live with their girlfriends before marrying them are more likely to be underemployed (before and after the marriage) than men who have not cohabited. Women who live with their boyfriends before marrying them are more likely to need to be employed full time to compensate for their husbands' underemployment. 5

So, what do you do if you're convinced that living together is/was a bad idea, after all?

  1. If you haven't moved in together yet, don't. Even if you think you're the exception; that you can dodge the realities listed above, why risk it? If you "really love each other and plan to get married some day" why live together and lower your odds to 30 percent? Or if you buck that trend and do get married, why increase your likelihood of divorce 80 percent over couples who didn't live together first?
  2. If you're already living together, end it. It doesn't have to mean the end of your relationship. It just changes it to a more appropriate dating relationship, where you'll be able to actually court and romance each other and work toward a possible marriage. Reclaim your singleness. Wouldn't it be nice to be "wooed" again? You either consciously decided to live together or you drifted into it. How it happened doesn't matter. Now, consciously decide to stop living together. Take a look at alternatives so you can afford to get out. If money's an issue: find a roommate, move back in with your parents for a time, look for a more affordable place.
  3. If the person you're living with disagrees with changing your relationship, is he or she really worth having anyway? Ask, "So you love me enough to live with me, but not enough to keep dating me and work toward a lifelong commitment together?" If that's the case, ask yourself, "What kind of commitment is that?"
  4. Get some support. It's probable this won't be an easy transition. Doing the right thing rarely is. Whether you're faced with the loss of a lover who wasn't willing to stick around after you moved out, or you're just going through sexual withdrawal (because he was willing to make the change with you and now you're abstaining), it will be easier to honor your new way of relating sex-free if you have the encouragement of other people. Spend time with couples who agree with your decision to live apart until marriage. Seek out the input of a pastor or other trusted adviser who will reinforce your decision. Don't go it alone. The temptation is too great.
  5. Get married. If your reason for moving out is to improve your chances for a lifelong marriage, why not get started? If you were serious enough to live together, you should be serious enough to seal the deal. Talk about getting married. If he/she is willing, find a premarital counselor. The best place to start the search is at church. Going through a class together should help you make a wise decision about your suitability for marriage to each other. And if you're not meant to be, why delay the inevitable. Life's too short to waste precious time with the wrong partner.

1Only 30 percent of couples who live together actually get married. John D. Cunningham and John K. Antill, "Cohabitation and Marriage: Retrospective and Predictive Comparisions," Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 11 (1994), pp. 77-93.
2Ibid.
3From a nationwide survey conducted by the University of Rhode Island, quoted in "Live-in Relationship More Prone to Violence," by Robert Haddocks, South Coast Today, www.s-t.com/projects/DomVio/Livein.html
4Michael D. Newcomb and P.M. Bentler, "Assessment of Personality and Demographic Assets of Cohabitation and Marital Success," Journal of Personality Assessment, 1980, p.16.
5Cunningham and Antill.

Six-Month Security

Living together was a farce, a halfhearted commitment with a huge "Exit" sign looming over it.

by Tiffany Stuart

"Hi, Hon, I just wanted to let you know I'll be home late. I'm going to hang out with the guys after work," Derek said.

As I hung up the phone, I swallowed the bitter taste of disappointment. Why doesn't he want to come home and be with me? So much for security once we moved in together.

The Lie That Living Together Offers

After dating on and off for three years, Derek and I were serious about our relationship. We agreed that living together was the next step. It sounded as natural as riding a tricycle before a bicycle and as practical as packing before taking a long trip.

And, we had other reasons:

Apartment Anxiety

Derek and I signed a six-month lease on a two-bedroom apartment, but I didn't trust Derek's long-term commitment. I demanded separate closets and bathrooms. I didn't want my dishes, pots and pans getting mixed up, so I shoved Derek's stuff into different cabinets. Like a student practicing a fire drill, I mentally rehearsed my escape — just in case. I had one foot in the door and an eye on the exit.

All I had was six-months of security — a signed rental agreement. Even though I prepared for the day the fire alarm would sound, I constantly pushed for commitment. I wanted intimacy and a way out at the same time.

"Where's our relationship going? Are we just going to live together? Do you see a future?" I complained.

"Sure I do. I want to marry you someday. But how can we? We don't have the money," Derek said. "I don't know how else to prove to you I'm committed. I left my friends and moved in with you. I say I love you every day. I come home every night. What more do you want?"

Living together is too easy for you. How about marriage? An engagement ring would help.

The truth was, I hated the living arrangements. But it was my way of controlling something, since I couldn't control our future.

Whenever Derek and I argued, I shut down, pouted and slept in the second bedroom. I waited in the dark for him to come and make up. Instead, Derek fell asleep. He wasn't interested in knocking down my protective walls — at midnight. Great, Derek is probably getting sick of this. What's going to happen when our lease expires? Will we stay together? He's probably going to leave me.

A Suffering Relationship

Not only did my relationship with Derek suffer because of my fears, my relationship with my mom suffered too. I was afraid I'd hear, "I told you so," if I was honest about my insecurity. I hid behind an "everything's fine" facade. I was determined to make living together work — even if it was a mistake.

My mom's words haunted me. "You can't try it on before you buy it; it's not a dress." Although I wasn't walking with God at the time, I knew enough Scripture to feel guilty and ashamed. But I justified it because I wanted to make sure the two of us were compatible before we said "I do." After all, I knew that more than half of all marriages end in divorce. I didn't want the "D" tattoo if our relationship didn't work out.

A month into our lease, Derek and I bought an Alaskan Eskimo puppy. A way to keep Derek, I thought. But weeks later, the shy puppy we picked out was still acting skittish. He started biting. So, we gave him away.

So much for "our" dog — and my security.

Even though I wanted a commitment from Derek, my commitment was conditional and temporary. I gave my body and my resources, but withheld my heart.

I longed for intimacy and relationship, but living together didn't satisfy. It's like planning a vacation to Hawaii, envisioning sunny, white beaches and then arriving to trash-lined shores and overcast skies. One is a dream. The other is a disappointing reality.

Despite our struggles, Derek and I eloped around the time our lease expired. Fifteen years and two children later, we're still together.

Nevertheless, Derek and I still regret living together. We missed out on the honeymoon experience. We regret sharing our meals, our households, and our bodies prior to being emotionally and spiritually committed as husband and wife. We started our marriage with a past. It took me years of marriage to trust Derek's real and lifelong commitment.

Someday I plan on sharing this with our children. It won't be easy. However, I believe they deserve the truth. I hope they will understand why we regret our decision and why God's design for a man and a woman is marriage.

Commitment Doesn't Include an Exit Strategy

Derek and I believed the lie of today's culture that living together is a natural progression of a lifelong relationship. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest a man should leave and cleave to a woman by renting an apartment. For me, living together was a farce, a halfhearted commitment with a huge "EXIT" sign looming over it. Marriage is a lifetime commitment — a covenant — not a six-month lease.

Thankfully, God is using our mistake to encourage other couples. As the opportunity arises, we share our story. We steer them away from living together and towards God's plan — marriage.


Dr. Bill Maier on Cohabitation

Dr. Bill Maier addresses the issues of cohabitation and living together.

Answered byDr. Bill Maier

Is Living Together A Good Test for Marital Compatibility?

Dear Dr. Bill: My boyfriend and I are both from broken homes and want to divorce-proof our future marriage. Is living together a good test for future compatibility?

That's a question a lot of young people are asking these days. According to the National Marriage Project, about 60% of young adults in America say they plan to live together before marriage. Many of them grew up in homes where divorce occurred, and experienced a tremendous amount of pain and insecurity as a result of their parents' break up. They are determined not to repeat their parents' mistakes and desire to find a "soul mate" to whom they will be married for life.

You and your boyfriend may believe that living together is a good way to find out if you are compatible — a "test drive" that will improve your chances for marital success. While this seems to make sense intuitively, actually just the opposite is true. Research indicates that couples who cohabit before marriage have a 50% higher divorce rate than those who don't. These couples also have higher rates of domestic violence and are more likely to be involved in sexual affairs. If a cohabiting couple gets pregnant, there is a high probability that the man will leave the relationship within two years, resulting in a single mom raising a fatherless child.

The best way to test your compatibility for marriage is to date for at least one year before engagement and participate in a structured, premarital counseling program, which includes psychological testing.

Why Shouldn't We Live Together?

Dear Dr. Bill: I heard you on Weekend Magazine talking about dating for a year before marriage and to not cohabitate. Why is this important if both persons are spiritual, have great faith in Jesus Christ, respect each other, have morals and values, etc.? Also, you said to participate in a structured marriage counseling session. I think this one is a very good idea. What other suggestions do you have for couples who plan to get married?

Thanks for your letter. As you mentioned, a few months ago I mentioned that many couples today believe that living together is a good way to find out if they are compatible — sort of a "test drive" that will improve their chances for marital success. While this seems to make sense, actually the opposite is true.

The latest research indicates that couples who cohabit before marriage have a 50-80% higher divorce rate than those who don't. These couples also have higher rates of domestic violence and are more likely to be involved in sexual affairs. If a cohabiting couple gets pregnant, there is a high probability that the man will leave the relationship within tow years, resulting in a single mom raising a fatherless child.

As a Christian, it's important for you to know that God has some very specific things to say about sex outside of marriage. Sexuality is a marvelous gift that He has given us. But the Bible clearly tells us that it is to be expressed within the context of marriage. There are many scriptures that address this issue. One of them is found in the book of Thessalonians. It says: "It's God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality, that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen who do not know God." As I mentioned earlier, when we venture outside of God's design in this area, the consequences can be devastating.

I would encourage you and your boyfriend to remain sexually pure until marriage. If you are already living together, you need to know that God considers that a sin, and it's important that you ask His forgiveness and then take seriously what He tells us in His Word.

To answer the second part of your question, I believe that pre-marital counseling is vital for every couple who is thinking about getting married. One of the best programs I know is called "Prepare and Enrich," and has an 80% success rate at predicting which couples will succeed, and which couples will be divorced within three years.

I also believe it's critical to date for at least one full year before getting engaged. Many couples who are in love rush into things, sometimes with disastrous consequences. If you think about it, what is 52 weeks when you're planning to spend the rest of your lives together? Some people won't agree with me, but I also don't believe it's wise to get married until you're at least in your early 20s. The research shows that couples who wait until they are at least 23 have a much lower divorce rate than those who marry younger. Getting married at 18 may have worked for our parents or grandparents, but young people today live in a very different world, one with a divorce rate close to 60%.

I hope that's helpful.


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