Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Cohabitation: Why Traditional Marriage Matters

Cohabitation: Why Traditional Marriage Matters

Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family's Director of Family Formation Studies, discusses the benefits of marriage and describes the negative consequences of couples living together before getting married – not only for couples who engage in that practice and their children, but society as a whole.


John Fuller: Well, try it before you buy it. If you’re looking for a car, that probably makes sense. You want to take it for a test drive before you purchase. It makes sense, so what’s the problem with trying a relationship before you get together, living together before you get married? We’ll examine that on today’s “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller

Jim Daly: John, when you think about it, the rational person can reasonably come to the conclusion that it might be good to try out a relationship, to live together. But of course, from a biblical standard, that’s not smart. And sure enough, social science now is saying, it’s not smart, that you’re less likely to have, you know, a commitment in a life-long marriage and for that marriage to be successful if you have cohabited. And we want to talk about that today. These are the nitty-gritty issues that perhaps some of your adult children are living through right now, your 20-, 30-something children. And perhaps we could put tools within your reach to have a good discussion with your adult children about these big issues.

John: Okay, well, you know, I think a lot of folks, Jim, have these reasons like, oh, we’re gonna save money. Or we’re going to just check our compatibility to make sure that we’re good to go before we actually make the final commitment. I mean, there are a lot of reasons that people have for living together before they get married.

Jim: They’re seemingly good reasons, John, but from a human perspective, I think God has put the Manual in front of us. He wants us to know the gift of marriage and what it means and what we learn through that. It’s not a way to punish us, not at all. Marriage is His best and we want to talk about that.

God designed marriage for a reason. It’s not willy-nilly. Culture’s been doing it for thousands of years, both Christian and non-Christian cultures. But it is to help us establish a healthy relationship with our spouse, one that’s built on commitment and trust. And you know, marriage creates a shared sense of responsibility. And frankly, it’s the best place–and again, social science is supporting this—for a child to grow up. And again, marriage is about procreation and raising children for the next generation.

John: Well, we have a colleague here to help us discuss this a little bit more. He’s been talking about and researching this topic for a number of years and has some great insights. Glenn Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies here at Focus on the Family, often giving presentations and speaking about matters related to gender, sexuality and marriage. And he’s written a number of books. The one that we’ll cover today is called The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage.


Jim: Glenn, welcome back to the microphone.

Glenn Stanton: Well, thank you, you guys. It’s good to be with you.

Jim: Let me start with this question and again, I’ll be a bit of an antagonist here, not that I don’t agree with you, but to tease out—

Glenn: Sure.

Jim: –you know, the arguments that a lot of 20-, 30-somethings might be making in defense to their parents about why it’s smart to cohabitate.

Glenn: Yep.

Jim: So, don’t believe I’m embracing it if you hear that in my voice.

Glenn: What’s wrong with you Jim? You don’t believe that—

Jim: Yeah, exactly.

Glenn: –do you?

Jim: But that leads to a good discussion, I think. Right out of the gate, what are the common reasons people choose to cohabitate? Why do they do it?

Glenn: Well, the date is very clear that the first one is the road test of the relationship.

Jim: Compatibility.

Glenn: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, only less than a quarter of cohabiting couples say we have no interest in marriage. More than 75 percent of ’em are saying, yes, we want to kind of road test this relationship and make sure that we’re compatible before we make this leap.

Jim: Now a lot of us parents, you know, we’re alarmed by that. We’re saying, but that’s not a good way to go. Again, the rational 20-, 30-something, is it fear? They don’t want to fail?

Glenn: You know what? That’s a huge thing, Jim, because we have to understand generations and in terms of where they came from. This seems a little off note here, but think about the generation of the Depression. They became one of the most financially prosperous generations of our nation. Now you have this generation that was raised in really huge family breakdown. I mean, so many young people are saying today, that I’ve never seen an intact marriage, not in my own family or among my friends.

Jim: So, they’ve seen a lot of divorce.

Glenn: They’ve seen a lot of divorce. They’ve seen a lot of family breakdown and they are scared to death that their own desires and their own goals of having a lifelong happy marriage may not be able to be realized.

So, what are they doing? They’re saying, you know what? We’re gonna dip our toe into that water, rather than just dive in, which is what a marriage is. And you know, honestly there’s a bit of rationality to that, if you think. I mean, it makes sense that we try out a car before we buy it. We try out a computer before we buy it. But marriage, your spouse, your beloved is not a consumer product. You know, we can’t approach it that way.

Jim: That’s an incredible point. We tend to do that. And I guess the question is, what do you say to that young couple who actually, I would think a percentage of them are trying to do this out of fear that they don’t want to fail? Once they commit to marriage, they want it to be life-long, but it’s not a good way to rationalize this.

Glenn: Yeah. Well, first of all, Jim, I mean, you made a very, very good point there and it’s what I found in my research that used to in the old days, people were cohabiting out of sort of a negative view of marriage. Well, marriage is just a piece of paper. Who really needs it?

But today, young people are cohabiting out of, ironically a high view of marriage and it’s exactly what you said, Jim, is, you know, we value marriage. We want marriage to work. We’ve not seen it work, so we’re just gonna try it out.

But what we need to understand it and you know, and this is not, you know, kind of closed-minded moralists making this case. It is cold, calculated social scientists that are showing us that there are few things that couples do of their own free will that are more likely to sandbag their chances of a healthy, happy, long-lasting marital relationship than living together.

Jim: Now let me ask in that regard. That seems counterintuitive—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –because of the very argument, the straw man that we’ve set up, that you know, people will rationalize, if I test drive—

Glenn: Yep.

Jim: — I have a more likelihood of success. And the exact opposite is true. Why is that happening in the data? What are the social scientists seeing? What is the human relationship issue?

Glenn: Well, it’s interesting that the scientists have a phrase for this. It’s called “the Cohabitational Effect.” And that means that cohabiting nearly always negatively affects the relationship and health of the relationship. That is not a question of whether it does or not. The question is exactly what you said, why? And that’s where all the debate is in the science literature.

But there are really kind of two things. One is the ambiguity of the relationship, if you will. I mean, basically, we find in research that men and women, the man and the woman in the relationship have a different expectation. The woman is always more likely to say, “Well, you know, we’re moving toward marriage. You know, marriage is likely in the future.”

Jim: So, she’s trusting in that future.

Glenn: She’s trusting in that future. She’s looking for that future.

Jim: Believing in it.

Glenn: Believing in it, but falsely, because the guy consistently is more like, “We’re just hangin’ out. We’re having fun. We’re just gonna see what happens.”So, women, even from, you know, kind of a feminist point of view, women in cohabitation are being sold a bill of goods by their partner.

Jim: I just wanted to make sure I heard that correctly. You’re saying the great majority of women in cohabiting situations believe in the future that this will be the man I’m gonna marry and I’m just kinda getting to that point. You know, I’m kinda biding my time until he pops the question. Whereas men, a large majority of them, aren’t believing that at all.

Glenn: That’s exactly right. They’re looking for different things and expecting different things in the cohabiting relationship. The woman is likely to see, “Well, if I can get my guy moved in and, you know, we’re sharing a home together and we’re washing dishes together, that that’s basically the conveyor belt to marriage.

Jim: Training?

Glenn: Well …

Jim: They’re thinking it’s training?

Glenn: Well, they do think that, but the guy on the other hand, he’s like, you know what? We’re not married. We’re just hangin’ out, havin’ fun, seein’ what happens. So, the woman has false expectations. She’s being sold a bill of goods about where this relationship is going.

John: All right, Glenn, not to put you on the hot seat, but I was talking to my daughter this morning, one of my daughters about our conversation here. And I told her we’re gonna be talking about this. What do you think? And she said, “Well, I know that the Bible says it’s wrong to live together before marriage. I just don’t know what verses that is.”

Glenn: Hm.

John: And I said, “Well, that’s a good question.”

Glenn: Yeah.

John: Well, let me bring that to our—

Glenn: Yeah.

John: –expert.

Glenn: Yeah.

John: So, is there a verse that says, “Don’t live together before you get married?”

Glenn: Well, it’s interesting, because there’s not one, because cohabitation wasn’t a thing then per se. But you know, it’s interesting that, you know, our children will [say], “Well, you never told me not to do that.” You know, but no, I gave you these basic rules that you could apply. And God is that same way.

Again, the ideal for marriage is the husband leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife and that Jesus tells us that same thing in the beginning of Matthew 19 and Mark 10, where He’s talking about marriage. He’s very clear what the relationship between the man and the woman is and that it’s to be taken and seen in marriage and that His sexual ethic, if you will, the rules that Jesus gives us for sexuality is, only within a marriage between a husband and wife. That excludes every other relationship, including cohabitation, regardless of how the couple themselves feel about that relationship.

Jim: And let’s—

John: That’s good.

Jim: –let’s drill into that a second, because I think the critical nature of this is, it’s not the, I guess what we would call the moral climate of the day that matters. It’s the Scripture, the truth of what we understand again, it’s not that—

Glenn: It’s timeless.

Jim: –you know, on college campuses, people are taught, a different rationalization to—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –relationship, that sex is biological, you know, the hook-up culture—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –all the things that we read about, that are so contrary to God’s best for us.

Glenn: And see, Jim, that’s a big, big point, because we can tend to think, well, the Bible says this over here and says no. But you know, that has nothing to do with science whatsoever. God didn’t make up rules like you said, just willy-nilly. He makes up rules for us, good and bad, because they lead to and contribute to our own well-being. And what’s fascinating is, that in cohabitation today, okay, God says no, but the science is saying no with a very loud voice, that it’s not a good idea.

Jim: And we should, in the Christian community elevate that and that’s what we wanted to do today, is to raise this issue. Let me ask it this way. What is the research showing that when a couple is married, although divorce rates are far too high, there is a difference between cohabiting and being married and going through difficult discussions about ending that relationship. Talk about that.

Glenn: Yeah, in fact, first of all, I mean, you’re right, Jim, that the scholars themselves say that cohabitation is not a subset of marriage. It’s a subset of being single, that cohabiting couples look more like single individuals or dating individuals than they do married couples. And that’s very significant.

I mean, you talked about fidelity first of all, that in cohabiting relationships, the guy is four times more likely to be unfaithful to his partner than a married man is with a ring on his finger.

Jim: Wow.

Glenn: The women surprisingly, women in marriage are more faithful than the men, but in cohabitation, they’re more unfaithful—eight times more likely than …

Jim: What’s happening there?

Glenn: Women aren’t so interested in sex as they are intimacy.

Jim: Relationship.

Glenn: And so, relationship, closeness, you know, the kind of snuggling sort of thing, to be honest about that. They are not as likely to get that in cohabitation. Therefore, they’re more likely to go out seeking that.

Jim: Well, and more vulnerable.

Glenn: And absolutely more vulnerable. And so, they’re not getting what they want, that female heart, that need to be loved, to be cared for, to be the most important person in that guy’s life. But they are more likely to get it in marriage and that’s why they’re more faithful.

Jim: Well, and again, this is a good reason for us as parents of again, teens, 20s, 30-somethings to have these really good discussions about—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –the benefits of marriage, the consequences of poor decisions.

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: And that’s why we’re doing the program today.

John: And you can find out more about Glenn’s book, The Ring Makes All the Difference and a variety of supporting materials that we have for you to affirm God’s design for marriage and ways to talk about that within your home, when you stop by or call us at 800-A-FAMILY.

And when you support Focus on the Family today with your generous donation, we’ll send Glenn’s book to you as our way of saying thank you.

John: Now, Glenn, we were talking about the two main reasons that cohabitation really doesn’t work and you said the first had to do with I think you called it the ambiguity of the relationship.

Glenn: Uh-hm.

John: What’s the second one?

Glenn: Well, the second one is just sheer commitment. I mean, we know time and time again, that regardless of what the couple thinks, they tend to be less committed to each other and less committed to the relationship. And if they go on to get married, they are less committed to the marriage itself.

So, when you take a relationship, you cut out commitment, I mean, duh! You know, the relationship is not going to be as strong as the marital relationship.

Jim: Glenn, when a couple lives together, we’ve talked about the intimacy issues, but—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –I’d like to talk, too just about how they handle conflict—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –differently. That came up in the research. We’ve got our hands full in marriages on how to communicate and handle conflict effectively—

Glenn: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: –constructively. What happens in a cohabiting couple with conflict?

Glenn: Well, simply and conflict is a part of every relationship. The issue is how a couple deals with it. That’s what indicates a healthy and unhealthy relationship. Cohabiters are shown time and time and time again to have more conflict and to deal with it less healthy than married couples do.

Jim: How does that play out?

Glenn: Well, basically, cohabiters tend to be more manipulative in their negotiations with each other.

Jim: Give me an example of that.

Glenn: Well, the example of that is you know, I give the example in the book, [a] man and woman cohabiting, her little niece is having a birthday party at, you know, some pizza place. And somebody needs to wear the Barney costume, okay? And you know, typically for a husband, it’s like, okay, I know who’s wearin’ the Barney costume.

For a cohabiting relationship and this was a real incident, he’s like, you know what? I don’t even know your little niece. She’s not related to me. I’m goin’ fishin’ with my buddies. I am not wearin’ that Barney costume.

Jim: So, he hasn’t bought in.

Glenn: He hasn’t bought in and so the live-in girlfriend essentially, she has to be more manipulative and the guys are more manipulative with the women, as well. I mean, it’s not just a female thing. She has to be more manipulative to him, putting guilt upon him, things like that, to get him into that Barney costume on a Saturday. Whereas a husband is like, okay, I know what I need to do. Wives can put their hands on their hips, look square in the eyes of her husband—

Jim: The eye, the look.

Glenn:–exactly and he knows–

Jim: We know about that look. (Laughter)

Glenn: –he knows exactly, it’s humanly universal. He knows what the deal is. A cohabiting woman does that, he’s like, you stand there all day long, I’m goin’ fishin’ with my buddies. They are different kinds of guys. And so, that’s where that manipulation comes in and it goes both ways.

Jim: When you look at the data again and you see, let’s speak to the Christian community—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –where young people, 20-, 30-somethings decide, okay, we’re not living the way we should live—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –and it’s wrong and we want—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –to correct that, now they get married. What does the data show us about the strength of those marriages after they’ve cohabited?

Glenn: Yeah. First of all, there’s some good news, is the kids growing up in Christian homes, committed Christian homes, are not near as likely to cohabit as kids not growing up in those homes.

But for those that are cohabiting and want to correct it or know what the deal is, they need, particularly, the women, that when you enter a cohabiting relationship, you are less committed to the relationship and to that person. But here’s what the research shows, that even if this couple goes on to get married, the guy, as a married man, tends to be less committed to his wife and to the marriage than a guy who has not cohabited–

Jim: So he kind of brings—

Glenn: –before

Jim: –that temperament and what he’s learned—

Glenn: Absolutely.

Jim: –into the marriage. Uh!

Glenn: He’s been trained to be that way, to live that way. The couple, the boyfriend and girlfriend have been trained to negotiate, to argue, to discuss money, conflicts in a less-healthy way. So, they bring that into the relationship, the marriage unfortunately, which is, if you will, kind of rocks in the backpack of them making the trip through life.

Jim: Let me push on you a bit, because my hair on the back of my neck went up when you said they’re trained that way. That puts a lot of responsibility on the woman, which I don’t believe is fair, as if she’s the great lion tamer and I don’t think you meant to say it that way.

Glenn: Well, no, no, no. The relationship itself trains them. The way that they’re interacting with one another trains them.

Jim: They both come away with a perspective—

Glenn: Absolutely.

Jim: –and attitude.

Glenn: Absolutely and see, that’s very, very important that the process of cohabiting itself makes a difference, because the relationship itself is different. If marriage and cohabitation were the same thing, people wouldn’t choose cohabitation over marriage. I mean, clearly they’re different things and it shapes, it changes, it molds the couple as a couple.

Jim: In the earlier part of the program, Glenn, you mentioned that cohabiting is a relatively new phenomenon, that they didn’t do that during biblical times, in the time of—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –Jesus or, you know. In the last probably 100 years or 50 years it’s become more fashionable.

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: Talk to the wisdom of the days, the ancient days. What wisdom were they pursuing that they knew in essence and let me set it up this way, they knew that when women gave freely of their sexuality—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –they lost. In essence, they lose control of men, ’cause men at their core, that’s what’s driving us often, is that sexual intimacy.

Glenn: And Jim, historically, that’s exactly what marriage is. I mean, the anthropologists who study marriage say, marriage has always existed. We cannot find a time when marriage started existing in human culture. And it did for that very purpose, to regulate sexuality and to make sure that the children that are produced by that relationship, live with a man and a woman who are committed to one another.

And it is protection for the woman, the protection of the mother there. And so, cohabitation does not provide that kind of protection unfortunately, for the woman. And it doesn’t incline the man to act differently.

I mean, you know, you’re at the basketball game. You’re playing with your buddies and husbands are lookin’ at their watch, you know. My wife wants me home at this time. And they’re happy to live that way, you know. Whereas cohabiting guys are like, you know what? I’ll get home when I get home. That’s a huge difference in that demonstrates itself in a zillion different ways. You know, men know that the power and influence of a wife is significantly stronger and more influential, more effectual, if you will, than a live-in girlfriend.

John: And you’re saying that research is confirming that. It’s not just a nice anecdote.

Glenn: Absolutely, it’s confirming that. It shows time and time again that a wife, a woman with a ring on her finger, married to a man with a ring on his finger, the wife is a more powerful player in the relationship. She has a stronger voice, more influential voice than the live-in girlfriend.

Jim: I think that’s a great point. As we wrap up though, we haven’t talked about children.

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: And you know, sometimes in these cohabiting relationship, the by-product of human sexuality is children.

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: What happens to the kids that are either in that relationship, that cohabiting relationship and that may be biological mom and dad or the mom’s had previous relationships.

Glenn: Yeah, yeah.

Jim: Talk about both those experiences.

Glenn: Well, first of all, we need to know that kind of in the old days, cohabitation was among the college-age group and you know, transitional. Now the majority of kids born out of wedlock, the slight majority of kids born out of wedlock are to cohabiting couples.

And so, these are more like, you know, the couples in the cul de sac that we live in and things like that. But cohabitation, just like it does with adults, impacts children very negatively. I mean, first of all, just four key things. Sexual and physical violence, I mean, the research tells us very clearly that you know, for instance, kids that are not living with a married mother and father are eight times more likely to die of maltreatment. That includes cohabiting relationships, you know, not married.

Poverty, I mean it’s interesting that generally only 6 percent of kids living with married parents are likely to live in poverty at any time in their childhood. That’s 31 percent for kids living in cohabiting homes. And you think about that. Six percent versus 31 percent and the only difference is the nature of the relationship between mother and father.

Academic success, I mean, kids who live with a married mother and father are dramatically more likely to do better in every measure of educational well-being. And we know how important that is to a child’s success.

And then the issue of stable homes, I mean, homes that are cohabiting, not built on marriage, are 292 percent more likely to break up and become fractured than kids living with married mothers and fathers.

Jim: Glenn, that again, is breathtaking data and when we talk about how we rationalize the decisions we make, we started the program by talking about how people who cohabitate think that’s a rational way—

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: –to test drive.

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: But in the end, when you look at the data, it’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing for all the reasons we talked about. You don’t get the commitment from the man typically and a woman, the large majority of women tend to think this is the first step to the proposal.

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: Ands so, they’re both in a different place entirely.

Glenn: Yeah.

Jim: How children suffer in that regard. Let me end it with this. Talk to me as your 25-year-old son, who is from a Christian home. You’ve been my father—

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: –and we are having this debate, because I’ve just told you I’d like to move in with Monica.

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: And I think that’s the right thing to do, ’cause I’m not sure she’s the one to marry, dad, but I think this is the best way to go. Tell me the story.

Glenn: Yeah, I mean, first of all, son, this is old, old wisdom. It’s old wisdom from our great, great grandparents, but it’s old wisdom from the Scriptures. And it’s new wisdom from the social sciences, that everything that you’re hoping cohabitation will do, the research is clear that all those things that you want cohabitation to do for you and you think that it will do, it does not do. In fact, there is no research whatsoever that cohabitation provides any positive benefits for those who are involved in it, adults and children, not for the relationship itself.

And what I like to tell people, Jim, is you know, young people, go find me some research, some good research that shows you any positive indicator of outcomes of cohabitation. You won’t find it. And so, you know, challenging them on an intellectual level, you know, on a fact level.

They can’t do it and all the data points in the opposite direction. I mean, that’s the thing, Jim, is that there is an absolute Grand Canyon division between what people think cohabitation does and hope that it’ll do and what the social sciences say it actually does.

Jim: Well, and I think the quick second to that, if not the first, is to say, “Son, you know what? I get it, the data drivenness of all this. But the other thing is your heart and—

Glenn: Yes.

Jim: –your heart’s over your head and your heart’s about the work that God does in you. And it’s not the right thing to do. And there is a biblical way to go and …

Glenn: And it’s not honoring to this woman that you love—

Jim: Right.

Glenn: –that you say you love.

Jim: So, in the end I say, “Dad, that is great advice. I’m gonna marry Monica.” (Laughter) And that’s the best world.

Glenn: And that’s what men do. They don’t just linger around the side of the pool, dip their toe in. They dive in and that’s what marriage is. That’s what that commitment is about. And that’s a manly, masculine thing to do.

Jim: Well, that’s what real men should do. You know, Glenn, I’m mindful though of women who are listening, who are feeling you know, anxious about their cohabiting relationship.

Glenn: Uh-hm.

Jim: They might be in a one right now. And I just want to speak to you and say, call us here at Focus on the Family. Let us help guide your thinking in this area, give you a biblical perspective on why those decisions need to be made to get a commitment from the person you’re with and the benefits of doing that. Glenn Stanton, author of the book, The Ring Makes All the Difference, great to have you in here.

Glenn: Thank you, Jim.


John: It really has been a good conversation and if you’re a single and what we’ve talked about today is maybe making you stop and think, “Wait a minute; they’re describing my situation; maybe I need to reevaluate here,” call us. Talk to one of our counselors. Think that through. Let us help inform any decisions you might make there. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459. And by the way, when you call, at times we quite a level of activity and the counselors can’t take your call right away. But they’ll get back to you just as soon as they can.

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