Focus on the Family

Cohabitation as a Means to Marriage

A couple walks down a street.
Photo by Vladimir Kudinov/ Unsplash
One of the biggest reasons why marriage is more successful than cohabitation is commitment.

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.”

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