A few months ago I heard a Christian speaker address living together before marriage (cohabitation) with blunt honesty– “Let’s just call it what it is– this generation’s acceptable sin.” The room felt still. Everyone knows someone (or is someone) from their small group or community who has decided living together is the best solution to their current situation. It’s saving us so much money. I want to see if we can actually live together without driving each other nuts. We aren’t even sleeping together… It just wouldn’t make sense for us to get separate apartments for a couple months. And the justification continues.
While this controversial topic is sure to cross your path, I wanted to provide a different perspective than my own or even the typical response of the church. I reached out to author Glenn Stanton, who wrote an entire book on the topic, to share some of his research and insight. This is great example of how scientific research backs up God’s design.
2 Myths of Living Together
by: Glenn T. Stanton
Myth #1: Living together before marriage empowers women in their relationship.
It is widely assumed that it does, making the relationship more equal and women more powerful players there.
One of the most interesting new findings in the research on the topic is that cohabitation actually makes women less powerful and influential partners. Cohabitation is the relationship on the man’s terms. Marriage is the relationship on the woman’s terms. Let me explain…
First, the fact that living together harms relational health shows up so often in the literature that scholars have given it a name: the cohabitation effect. The effect is that living together without marriage tends to weaken current relationships and future marriage both in terms of their future prospects and current health. Two leading sociologists from the University of Michigan, explained many years ago that the:
“…expectation of a positive relationship between cohabitation and marital stability…has been shattered in recent years by studies conducted in several Western countries, including Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and the United States.”
They report cohabitation is associated with a 50% to 80% greater likelihood of divorce compared with those who marry with no cohabiting history.
Averaging out the findings of numerous other studies on the cohabitation effect, it is safe to say the average first-time cohabiter faces a 65 percent greater risk of divorce compared to a non-cohabiting peer.
When cohabitation is compared with marriage in various measures of personal well-being, we find stark differences. Married women consistently report being markedly happier with life compared with their cohabiting peers. And this greater happiness associated with marriage is on level with having a 2.5 increase in household income according to a study of by a University of San Francisco economist or an extra $100,000 yearly income according to research conducted in the United Kingdom. Who’s not interested in that kind of happiness?
Married women are also more likely to live longer, healthier lives, both physically and psychologically. In fact, these British scholars say “marriage has a more important effect on longevity than income” which is significant when you consider how income impacts the neighborhood you live in, the quality of food you eat and how often as well as the health care you can afford. In fact, there is no significant well-being measure for women or children where cohabitation outpaces marriage.
Myth #2: Cohabitation empowers women more than marriage.
Scholars have been looking at gender distinction and empowerment in these two relationships. Women are more likely living under the false pretense of the relationship itself. Who believes that’s empowering? But some cohabiting women did recognize the implications. Two of the leading sociologists examining cohabitation explain that after time in a cohabiting relationship, “women [were] more likely to view cohabitation as delaying marriage and lessening their bargaining power for marriage…” The men on the other hand had very different concerns with cohabitation, expressing that similar to marriage, moving in together “curtailing one’s freedom.” One man explained, “In terms of partying, kicking it with other females, going to sleep with other friends, …it just slowed down” when we moved in together. Marriage changes a man’s perspective and behavior. Cohabitation, not so much.
A 2010 study shows that cohabiting men get a housekeeper as well as a dependable sex-partner. Cohabiting men are shown to be less likely to be acquainted with a mop, toilet brush or a vacuum cleaner, with married men helping with household chores up to 8 hours a week more than their cohabiting buddies. And the husband is less likely to complain about helping out. And the cohabiting male’s domestic assistance tends to decline with time, compared to hubbies. Pamela Smock from the University of Michigan explains that men tend to perceive living together as more advantageous because,
“Given that cohabitation is typically more gender egalitarian in terms of labor force involvement than marriage, the arrangement relieves men of primary breadwinning responsibilities, while still providing them with domestic support; studies show even in cohabiting unions, women perform the majority of domestic work.”
Cohabiting women, in contrast to marrieds, face significantly higher rates of physical and sexual assault from their intimate partners, by measures from two to four times greater.
Infidelity is also remarkably higher in cohabiting relationships, by measures of 4 to 8 times greater.
Anyone trying to make a case for how living together before marriage is better for women would be hard-pressed for evidence from the research. Because of the distinct ways that men and women are wired, lower levels of commitment and relational definition – as found in cohabitation – tend to favor the male nature. The higher levels of commitment and clear relational definitions of marriage favor the woman. This is a humanly universal anthropological fact.
This research finds time and again that married women tend to be much happier and healthier than their single and cohabiting peers. And the same is true of men because marriage, for various and important reasons, transforms men into better men.
Ladies, when you have found your man, tell him you will be most happy to move in with him, but you’ll only do so on your terms. Tell him you demand a very nice ring first, then a beautiful ceremonial party with him announcing his intentions toward you before all your friends and family. Something like a wedding. Doing so will make both you and your man better, more powerful people.
Glenn T. Stanton is the Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family and the author of the newly released, The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage (Moody, 2011), upon which this article is based.
Check out Glenn’s book: