February 13, 1999
A VALENTINE'S DAY WARNING: DON'T COHABIT
This Valentine's Day, a chill wind from Rutgers
University is blowing away a dangerous illusion of modern romance
that living with someone is the way to decide whether to get married and to
avoid a future divorce. Actually, neither is correct.
''Living together before marriage increases the
risk of breaking up after marriage,'' says the landmark report, ''Should We
Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before
Marriage.'' It cites a study that cohabitors who marry ''are estimated
to have a hazard of dissolution that is about 46 percent higher'' than those
who live apart before marriage.
''Living together outside of marriage increases the
risk of domestic violence for women and the risk of physical and sexual
abuse for children.'' Cohabiting women are twice as likely as married women
to be physically abused and are three times as likely to be depressed.
Why? Women agree to live together in hopes
that it is a step toward marriage, while men do so for the easy access to
sex. My Valentine's Day advice to such women is to move out. Remember
your mother's advice, ''He's never going to buy the cow if he gets free
Paul put it succinctly in his letter to the
Corinthians: ''Flee fornication.''
Americans are moving in the opposite direction.
In 1960, only 430,000 couples lived together. That figure has soared
ten-fold to 4,236,000 by 1998. Young people see no harm in that trend.
Indeed, the report says nearly 60 percent of high school seniors think it is
a good idea to live together before getting married. Yet as more cohabit,
fewer get married. The marriage rate has plunged 41 percent in the same
Thus, cohabitation is a double cancer of marriage.
It has diverted tens of millions from getting married. The number of
never-married Americans has doubled from 21 million in 1970 to 46 million by
1997. And by increasing the odds of divorce of those who do marry after
living together, cohabitation is one reason divorces tripled from
390,000 in 1960 to 1,163,000 in 1997.
The report by Dr. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe
Whitehead summarizes academic research for The National Marriage Project of
Rutgers. It says that while marriages are held together by ''a strong
ethic of commitment, cohabiting relationships by their very nature tend to
undermine this ethic.'' They differ in their levels of commitment and
autonomy. ''Once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating
becomes learned, it becomes hard to unlearn.''
It cites a Penn State study that ''the more months
of exposure to cohabitation that young people experienced, the less
enthusiastic they were toward marriage and childbearing.''
''Particularly problematic is serial
cohabitation....The experience of dissolving one cohabiting relationship
generates a greater willingness to dissolve later relationships. People's
tolerance for unhappiness is diminished and they will scrap a marriage that
might be salvaged.''
Thus, cohabitation fosters selfishness, not the
selflessness needed for marital stability.
Indeed, the report notes that a sad byproduct of
shacking up is that the number of unmarried couples with children has grown
from 21 percent in 1987 to 36 percent a decade later: ''Half of all children
will spend some time in a cohabiting family before age 16.''
A British study found that children living with
cohabiting but unmarried biological parents are 20 times more likely to be
victims of child abuse as those of married parents. And children of a mother
living with a man who is not the father are 33 times more vulnerable to
Therefore, the report recommends that couples
''Consider not living together at all before marriage. Do not make a habit
of cohabiting.'' Finally, ''Do not cohabit if children are involved''
because its effects are devastating to children and long-lasting.
I would add that churches should stop aiding this
trend by their silence. Pastors should cite this sociological evidence that
Scripture is right in calling for chastity, and preach on it from the
pulpit, as a warning to the young and to help middle-aged parents know what
to tell their adult children who are cohabiting.
Second, churches should offer young adults an
alternative way to test their relationship by taking a premarital inventory.
They can predict with 80 percent accuracy which couples will divorce, and a
tenth who take them decide not to marry that person. Studies show they are
avoiding a bad marriage before it has begun.
St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, ''Test
everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil.''
Cohabitation is an embracing of evil. Premarital testing avoids it, while
holding on to the good.
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.
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