As our culture’s view of marriage has grown increasingly pessimistic, more and more couples have chosen to move in together instead of exchanging vows. But is cohabitation really a better option?
Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, recently sat down with Dr. Timothy Keller and his wife, Kathy, to discuss the issue of marriage vs. cohabitation. The Kellers are the authors of The Meaning of Marriage and have been married for 37 years. Here are highlights from that conversation:
Jim Daly: Marriage has kind of devolved into simply a physical relationship, which leads younger couples to try cohabitation over marriage.
Kathy: Well, you don’t really learn to know the other person when you still have the back door open where you can scoot out. It’s not until you’ve made the commitment to one another in a marriage that you actually learn that there’s no getting out of this, so you have to find a solution. Solutions are much harder than just escaping the problem, and the cultural consensus today is, “What I want is to find a woman who doesn’t want to change me. And I won’t change her, either.” Well, marriage is actually supposed to be a vehicle for change. It’s supposed to be helping one another [move] toward [becoming] the person that God intends you to be.
Jim: To think of marriage as a sanctification process — that’s a new thought for many people. I believe people don’ t really understand marriage in a biblical context that way.
Kathy: I’m sure you’re right because, culturally, marriage is just [about] finding someone that’s fun to be with and you can have really good sex [with] and they don’t bug you too much.
Tim: In other words, you’re consuming.
Kathy: Yes, it’s a consumer relationship.
Tim: In other words, you are a dispenser of sexual goods and services, and maybe recreational goods and services, and maybe companionship goods and services. And if I think your products are a good deal for the price, which should be not high, then I will be very happy to stay with you. See, that’s my answer to the question, “What about cohabiting?” I actually think that having sex with somebody you’re not married to is no preparation for having sex with someone you’re married to. In fact, it teaches you all the wrong things because when you’re living with somebody who could walk at any time, you’re still in promotion and marketing phase. You have to be. You can’t really be vulnerable.
Jim: Because you’re worried the [other] person is going to leave?
Tim: Yeah, they could leave at any time, which means you’re selling yourself and they’re buying. You’re not in a committed covenant relationship. You’re in a consumer-vendor relationship. You better not put any weight on; you better not go into a month of really being kind of blue and go into a semi-depressed “funk,” because I’m outta here. In which case, you’ve got to just pull it together.
Jim: When you look at the institution of marriage and a young couple that gets married, it’s feeling like that’s simply a speed bump because people are divorcing for very simple reasons.
Jim: Tim, what’s happening?
Tim: Well, because even once they get married, they keep this idea that marriage is a consumer-vendor relationship — the price can’t be too high and the quality of the product has to be pretty good. In other words, I’ll go to another grocery store if the celery is fresher and the prices are a little bit lower. I’m going to go there — I have no loyalty. I’m going to go where I can get a better deal. As long as you say, “We’re just not really getting much out of the relationship, so we’re gonna walk,” it’s like a relationship with your grocer. It’s really not a covenant relationship.
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Kathy: Tim, do you think that part of the reason marriage is suffering is because the whole cultural flow is to keep your options open?
Tim: Yes. . . . There are all kinds of cultural trends working against marriage, but I don’t think there’ll be an infinite regress. I just don’t think marriage can go away. The reality is that it’s just too healthy an experience to have. One of the things … pointed out in the empirical research is that there are a lot of happily married people. A lot of happily married people.
If you’d like to hear more about the meaning of marriage, the entire broadcast is available on CD: God’s Blueprint for a Healthy Marriage. Or, you can find the Kellers’ book The Meaning of Marriage in our bookstore.