On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, and same-sex marriage became the law of the land. Various Christian leaders described themselves as grieved, troubled, and sobered by the decision. They characterized it as a tragic error and an assault on marriage. Properly so, for in a 28-page opinion, a bare majority of five justices to four overturned the millennia-old understanding that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Yet one could argue that another trend in our culture has done more to undermine the institution of marriage, with far less vocal protest from the Church: the practice of premarital cohabitation. Consider, for example, that Gallup estimates that in the year after Obergefell v. Hodges, 123,000 same-sex marriages took place, less than six percent of all marriages solemnized in the United States. By contrast, a study conducted by the Barna Group in April 2016 found that 57 percent of adults either were currently or had previously lived together outside of marriage, including 48 percent of practicing Christians. The study also found widespread popular support for the practice — 65 percent of adults agreed that it is a good idea, including 41 percent of practicing Christians.
As we agree that widespread divorce is destructive, we can also point out that the culture’s answer, cohabitation, offers no solution to that problem. If anything, living together before marriage makes the problem worse.
The number of cohabiting couples has increased from 439,000 in 1960 to 8,075,000 in 2016, according to the Census Bureau, an increase of more than 1,739 percent. Barna editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone observes that America has passed the tipping point concerning cohabitation.
“Living together before marriage is no longer an exception,” she notes, “but instead has become an accepted and expected milestone of adulthood.” In their book “Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers,” Mike and Harriet McManus write, “Without debate or public notice, and with too little dismay or concern voiced even by the church, living together has become the dominant way American couples start their life together.”
Trending Toward Cohabitation
How did this happen? Two trends in American culture can be identified as contributing to this phenomenon.
The first is the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, spawned in part by easy access to the birth control pill. This cultural wave yielded the practice of “hooking up,” where sex, rather than being reserved for marriage, is often treated as nothing more than a pleasurable end to a night on the town.
As Amy Tracy reported in her article “Cohabitation as a Means to Marriage,” one young woman told her, “We slept together on the second date. There was no hesitation; it just seemed like what you do.” When sex and marriage have become so separated in a culture, it isn’t surprising that hybrid relationships develop.
The second cultural trend that has influenced the rise of cohabitation is another product of the ‘60s, the upsurge in divorce, particularly after the introduction of no-fault divorce. Since 1970, 42 million people have experienced the divorce of their parents, often more than once. A pastor serving as chaplain of the local high school football team recounted a conversation he had with one of the team members; the pastor had mentioned that he had seven siblings. “So do I,” the football player said. “And three fathers and two mothers.”
Those who have lived through such family instability don’t want to reproduce it for their children. They want to be sure their marriage will work. Thus was born the conventional wisdom behind most cohabiting relationships: try it out first.
Barna’s research shows that 84 percent of couples who live together say they want to test their compatibility; that’s the main reason they cohabit. University of Michigan sociologists Pamela Smock and Wendy Manning report that today’s young people “think it would be idiotic not to live with someone before marriage.”
An analogy is often drawn to making a major purchase: “If you wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, why would you make a far more significant decision — marrying somebody — without a trial?”
At first blush this seems like a common-sense argument, understandable considering the number of marriages that fail, until you consider the analogy more closely. In Jeff VanGoethem’s book “Living Together,” he asks three penetrating questions:
•When you test-drive a car and decide not to buy it, does the car feel rejected?
•Will it carry baggage from its rejection into the next test drive?
•Are its chances of being a good family car damaged because you didn’t buy it?
Simply asking these questions demonstrates the utter failure of the analogy to convey the emotional and spiritual complexities of being human. It should be no surprise, then, that study after study reveals how cohabitation fails as a predictor of marital success.
Ironically, it fails in its very purpose: the prevention of divorce. Of the 50 percent of cohabiting relationships that proceed to marriage, 67 percent end in divorce (compared to the usual 45 percent for first marriages). Thus, cohabitation appears to promote the main thing it is meant to prevent.
The Essential Role of Honesty and Commitment
Why would cohabitation fail to ensure the success of a resulting marriage? The primary reason appears to be the absence of commitment. Unlike media portrayals where the couple discusses whether to take their relationship to “the next level” (moving in together), most cohabiting couples slide into that decision rather than decide.
It begins with a dating relationship that soon becomes sexual. As time goes on, he is sleeping over at her place on a semi-regular basis. She suggests it would be more economical for him to move all his stuff to her place — besides, then they could be together every night. In an article in The New York Times, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, states that such “drifting” into cohabitation not only lacks the public markers of rings and ceremonies that characterize marriage, but frequently doesn’t even involve a conversation.
“Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.” Often they have entirely different agendas, she says. “Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone a commitment.” Such ambiguity often creates instability in the relationship and insecurity in the partners, especially the partner who brings a higher degree of commitment to the arrangement.
The lack of commitment inherent in cohabitation can also contribute to a lack of honesty. As the McManuses point out, cohabitation is a kind of audition for marriage. The couple is evaluating each other to determine how compatible they are. Since each wants to be judged as meeting the other’s expectations, they may be reluctant to reveal certain things about themselves. Perhaps this is one reason Dr. Catherine Cohan of Pennsylvania State University found that married couples who had lived together first were more negative and less supportive of their partners when trying to resolve marital problems — they had practiced hiding things from each other before the wedding.
What sort of marriage will result from such an “audition”? Sociologists Ronald Rindfuss and Audrey VandenHuevel, in their contribution to the book “The Changing American Family,” argue that cohabitation is a way of prolonging singleness. In their research, they found that in matters such as child-rearing, responsibilities, home ownership, and self-identification, those who cohabit more closely resemble single people than those who are married. This, they say, springs from the individualism of American culture — their relationship says “me” rather than “we.”
It’s easy to understand how a marriage growing out of such a relationship can be abandoned when “we” no longer serve the interests of “me.” As Jay suggests, the vow “we do” provides a different basis for a relationship than “maybe you’ll do.”
With so much research pointing to the perils of cohabitation, why is it so widespread? Surely part of the answer is that the research is not nearly as well-publicized as the conventional wisdom of “try it first.” But a more powerful reason is that the conventional wisdom has become axiomatic in our culture. For example, when characters on a television show consider moving in together, they don’t discuss whether the practice itself is wise — they simply assume it is. Many young people are swept into cohabitation by the cultural tide; as the young woman told Amy Tracy, “It just seemed like what you do.”
The Church’s Task: Countering Culture
What can the church say to a culture that has settled on premarital cohabitation as the best way to prepare for marriage? First, we can agree with the culture’s conviction that widespread divorce is destructive. In Malachi 4:16, God says, “The man who hates and divorces his wife … does violence to the one he should protect … . So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”
Jesus echoes this in His dispute with the Pharisees over divorce in Matthew 19. When they suggest that Moses commanded divorce (in Deuteronomy 24), Jesus points out that the provision allowing divorce was, instead, a concession granted “because your hearts were hard.” Casting aside a no longer wanted wife is something fallen people will do; such a wife needs legal protection, and that’s what Deuteronomy 24 is about. “But it was not this way from the beginning,” Jesus said.Divorce is contrary to God’s original plan.
But as we agree that widespread divorce is destructive, we can also point out that this culture’s answer, cohabitation, offers no solution to that problem. If anything, living together before marriage makes the problem worse. Clearly, most couples who enter cohabiting relationships are looking for a good thing — a lasting marriage, one that will produce a stable and happy family. Cohabitation is not likely to produce one.
We have the picture of such a family in Ephesians 5 and 6. There Paul describes the family as the Creator designed it: a husband loving his wife and giving himself up for her; a wife submitting to his leadership—not in some paternalistic, servile way, but with deep respect for his self-giving character; the husband and wife nurturing their children into adulthood, gently admonishing them to stay on the path of life. Such a family grows from a marriage that does what it was designed to do: mirror the love of a self-giving Savior for His beloved Church, and show the self-giving response of the Church to that love.
Genesis 2:24 tells us that there is a divine design to the timeline of such a marriage: it begins with a public commitment and the establishment of a new household (“a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife”) and is consummated by the act of physical intimacy (“they shall become one flesh”) that pictures the deeper intimacy that their union is intended to produce. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that these relationships are permanent: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Divorce desecrates it, and by attempting to reverse the timeline, cohabitation undermines it. In essence, Jesus says getting married is like walking into a room, locking the door behind you, and throwing away the key.
But doesn’t that describe a prison? That’s the way the disciples read it: “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Are they right? Is marriage without an escape hatch something to avoid at all costs?
Marriage: An Arena for Intimacy and Healing
Marriage is to be avoided only if you also want to avoid the blessing of deep intimacy. The verse immediately following the passage in Genesis that establishes the marriage timeline, Genesis 2:25, gives a snapshot of the intimacy it’s intended to produce. “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” Their physical nakedness speaks of a deeper nakedness, the total exposure of their souls to each other. That’s the sort of intimacy Adam and Eve experienced before the Fall introduced shame into the human family.
But shame, the humiliation that accompanies sinful actions, whether my own or those inflicted on me, leads me to “clothe” that shame, to hide it from others, allowing it to fester into an ugly infection inside. I desperately need to expose that which brings me shame so it can be acknowledged and healed.
God has designed marriage as an arena for such exposure and healing. But will that happen apart from an unwavering commitment? If I’m afraid that someday you will abandon me, will I be likely to share my darkest secrets with you — especially if my secret shame might one day be shared with someone else? Unless I’m convinced that you have made a permanent commitment to me, the blessing marriage is intended to bring will be frustrated. Both easy divorce and premarital cohabitation undermine that kind of commitment.
This is not to suggest such a commitment is easy to maintain. In a fallen world it will be tested almost every day. But when that commitment is entered with vows made before a God of grace and power, the One who created marriage will work to sustain that commitment through “better or worse.” The marriages that result can be beautiful, like the marriage of Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin.
Robertson and Muriel met while both were students at Columbia Bible College. He proposed on Valentine’s Day in 1948; they married in August the same year. Over the next 30 years, they served on the mission field, raised a family, and moved back to the place where they met as Robertson assumed the presidency of Columbia and Muriel joined the faculty.
But all was not well. In 1981, Muriel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the following years, Robertson saw his once vibrant, witty wife slowly fade away. In 1990, Robertson reached a turning point — both the school and his wife needed him full-time. He said the choice was an easy one — he resigned as president of Columbia, several years before his planned retirement. “The decision was made … 42 years ago,” he said, “when I promised to care for Muriel ‘in sickness and in health … till death do us part.’ … Duty, however, can be grim and stoic. But there is more: I love Muriel. She is a delight to me … .”
The deeply committed love between them was mutual, even as the disease took its toll on Muriel. In the years before Robertson’s retirement, she would often become distressed when he was away from her, so she would walk the half-mile to his office several times a day looking for him. Once, Robertson was helping take her shoes off and discovered her feet were bloody from walking to see him.
Almost everyone will be moved by the beauty of a marriage like that of the McQuilkins. But, as Robertson said, that marriage gained its strength from their choice to stand before God and the world and make unbreakable promises to each other at its start. There can be little doubt that each of them looked back on those promises over the years as they faced other hard times together, and that they had to rely on the grace of God and His support to hold fast to them during those times. It was those promises and the commitment they made to each other that prepared them for their greatest trial, through which the beauty of their love could shine. Such beautiful marriages, growing out of adherence to the biblical prescription for marriage, show how much that prescription outshines today’s conventional wisdom.
Larry Hoop is a retired teaching elder who works part time for the PCA Administrative Committee. Prior to his retirement, he was pastor of Colfax Center Presbyterian Church in Holland, Iowa, for 24 years. He and his wife, Debbie, live on the farm in Adams County, Ohio, where he grew up.