Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Living Together Before Marriage

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

Living together before marriage has become extremely common in American society. In fact, it has been estimated that over half of couples in the US will live together before marriage. Couples will report a variety of reasons for cohabiting before marriage, when asked. These range from financial considerations to convenience to simply “drifting into living together.” Concern about avoiding divorce, however, also appears to be one of the motivations for couples deciding to live together before marriage.

The divorce rate in the US continues to hover around the 50% mark, and increasing attention is being paid to factors that increase or decrease the risk of divorce.1 For example, risk of divorce increases for second marriages and if the partners are under 20 years of age. It decreases with more education, and if the woman grew up in a two-parent home. With the intention of avoiding divorce, I have heard numerous couples and individuals say that they believe it is important to live together first, to see if they are compatible. In fact, many young people believe that living together prior to marriage increases the likelihood of the marriage being successful. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Research has shown that cohabitation prior to marriage is actually a risk factor for divorce. In fact, premarital cohabitation is has been shown to be linked to multiple negative outcomes, including higher rates of physical violence, wife infidelity, and lower levels of marital quality. This has become such a clear pattern that researchers interested in marriage have begun to study the factors that contribute the “cohabitation risk”.2 One obvious factor that investigators have looked at is religiosity. It is assumed that cohabitation as well as willingness to divorce would be negatively related to how religious a person is. However, the negative effect of premarital cohabitation is apparent even after taking into account variables such as degree of religious commitment.

Markman & Stanley conceptualize two sets of forces that impact individuals in the formation and maintenance of marriages. One force encourages individuals to form and maintain the relationship and the other force increases the cost of leaving. They refer to these forces as Dedication and Constraint Commitment, respectively. Examples of dedication would be the sense of “we” or couple identity, desire for a shared future, and so on. Constraint commitment refers to the financial cost of separating or perceived low quality of alternatives. They suggest that constraints contribute to why unhappy couples stay together and marry if they are living together. Recently, they have begun to examine some of the factors that contribute to marital instability in couples that cohabit prior to marriage. In a longitudinal study of almost 200 couples, they found that men who cohabit prior to engagement were less dedicated to the women than men who did not cohabit or did so only after they were engaged. This lower dedication persisted into the early years of marriage, to the limit that the study followed the couples.

These results sound remarkably like some pop psychology, for example, that men are more reluctant than women to make a commitment to marriage. They also, however, call into question some other myths, particularly that women are likely to believe that cohabitation is a step toward marriage to a greater extent than men do. Women who cohabit with the goal of coaxing men into marrying them are misguided about the effect of this on the men’s dedication to them. Lack of dedication increases the probability of divorce.

As evangelical Christians, we are committed to marriage as a creation ordinance, and to supporting the formation and maintenance of healthy marriages. Here is a place where modern psychological science provides additional support for a biblical model of family development, with cohabitation following marriage as the pattern producing the most stable, healthy marriages. This encourages me once again that what God prohibits in Scripture, he does so not to spoil our fun but because it is best for us: these are the boundaries that enable us to grow into mature, healthy individuals who become all that God intended us to be, enabling us to honor him in all areas of life.

I have provided premarital counseling to Christian couples who are cohabiting. When I present these research findings about the effects of premarital cohabitation to them, I have been amazed at the reaction. Rather than recognizing the wisdom of God’s way, they have simply disbelieved the research. This seems to me a place where postmodern philosophy has had a deeply practical impact on how people live. When one believes that truth is relative and socially constructed, then this kind of evidence about the consequences of premarital cohabitation need not have any effect on personal choices. This reminds me how extremely important it is that we hold and teach a biblically grounded perspective on truth and the application of truth to our lives.

1Bramlett MD and Mosher WD. Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(22). 2002.
2G.K. Rhoades, S.M. Stanley, & H.J. Markman (2006) Pre-engagement cohabitation and gender asymmetry in marital commitment. Journal of Family Psychology 20(4), 553-560.

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