In the past few months, there has been a lot of buzz about the steep rise in cohabitation across America, especially among my generation of twenty-somethings. The dialogue was started by “The State of Our Unions,” the annual report on marriage in the U.S., which found that what was still referred to as “living in sin” back in 1960 has grown fifteen-fold in the years since.
But the issue really hit home for me personally when two couples I’m friends with moved in together. Both have religious backgrounds, which has historically been a major deterrent to cohabitation. But both also come from divorced homes –and that’s the source of much of the tension for many men and women my age between personal faith and the need, as Beyonce sings, to “put a ring on it” before living together.
Sociologists often speak of how generations are shaped by what they are denied. The millennial generation has seen and felt the heartbreak surrounding divorce. Many of us were denied a stable home environment, so we struggle with commitment -- not out of rebellion, but simply because we did not see “till death do us part” modeled by our parents. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it, though; being deprived of seeing many examples of long-lasting, unconditional love has actually caused us to desire it deeply.
The Pew Research Center has found that millennials have “the strongest desire to marry” of any generation today. An MTV poll a few years back found that 92 percent of young people 13 to 24 “definitely” or “probably” want to get married.
While that desire is strong, it is often matched (and beaten) by a paralyzing fear about making the jump to any commitment, especially a marriage. The meet-me-halfway point is cohabitation.
Unfortunately, cohabitation is not an answer to our longings; and it’s not a healthy preseason to marriage. Its message is, “I’d really like to take part of you. And maybe some time in the future I’ll consider taking all of you.” Ironically, that’s the very thing we’re afraid of -- a commitment-free, self-focused relationship.
As a single millennial working for a Christian organization that helps couples build strong marriages and weather the rough times that come, I understand that marriage is not easy. I also understand that often times what is best for us is not the easiest path. One certainly doesn’t need to have any religious faith to understand this. Setting religious convictions aside, social science is not erring on the positive side for cohabitation. Rather, it is displaying that cohabitation is a pale counterfeit to what is best for us relationally.
My friend and coworker Glenn Stanton reveals in his new book, The Ring Makes All the Difference,that marriage, not cohabitation, is the best option for couples – but especially for women. Research tells us (see page 117) that a woman who cohabitates before marriage will increase her likelihood of getting a husband who:
· displays violent behavior toward her;
· is less committed to her;
· is less committed than she is to the marriage;
· is less likely to be emotionally and practically supportive; and
· is more generally relationally negative.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but as Glenn and many other sociologists conclude, this pre-marriage experiment is not the best way sustain a healthy relationship or to build a lifelong, lasting union “in sickness and in health.”
Cohabitation may be the fastest-growing family type in the U.S., but it is a mask to a true, authentic and committed relationship -- marriage. Living together before saying “I do” will not help lower the divorce rate, and it will certainly not ensure an unbroken heart.
In many cases, in fact, it will lead to exactly the opposite.
Esther Fleece is assistant to the president for millennial relations at Focus on the Family.