The Friendly Atheist: Does Cohabitation Work?

by Hemant Mehta

As a guy who once lived with his girlfriend, I know I learned things about her (and vice-versa) that several more years of dating probably wouldn’t have brought to light. I say we were both better off because of that. Had we gotten married, I don’t think there would have been as many major “surprises” along the way. (We eventually broke up for personal reasons, but our living together had nothing to do with that.)

Cohabitation has historically been frowned upon in the Christian community, but the trend seems to be that younger Christians are increasingly okay with living with their significant others before marriage.

However, an article in the Christian magazine Relevant urges readers not to go forward with it:

For the increasing number of young, unwed couples who live together, there is good cause to worry. Although an expanding body of evidence shows that “shacking up” damages individuals, relationships and communities, acceptance of cohabitation is growing, even among young Christians.

As it turns out, cohabitation actually weakens relationships and promotes divorce. Cohabitors break up at a rate much higher (up to five times higher) than married couples. When their relationships unravel, cohabitors experience all the emotional turmoil and much of the economic fallout of a divorce. And, while transitioning from cohabitation to marriage stabilizes some relationships, studies show higher divorce rates for those who live together first.

So why doesn’t cohabitation deliver on its promise to better prepare couples for marriage? Research has found that unwed couples who choose to live together have less reverence for the institution of marriage and less confidence that it will last. Lower expectations weaken a couple’s resolve to stay together, even after they make the transition from cohabitation to marriage.

There are, of course, no citations for any of this research.

Meanwhile, a report that was put out last year by the National Center for Health Statistics said the complete opposite:

Couples who live together before marriage and those who don’t both have about the same chances of a successful union…

Sociologist Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor considers the data definitive. “On the basis of these numbers, there is not a negative effect of cohabitation on marriages, plain and simple,” she says.

So what are the reasons Relevant contributor Rob McNiff offers for why cohabitation is bad?

For those who marry first, the decision to give lifelong care and love to one’s partner comes before the pleasures of married life, including sexual intimacy. The couple promises, in effect, not to seek the gratification of their strongest desires from one another until they commit to a life of mutual service and faithfulness.

Sounds like B.S. to me. I know it’s only anecdotal, but living with my ex made sex a less relevant issue. It’s like that option was always there, so we were able to focus on other aspects of the relationship.

Research also shows that the high rate at which cohabitors break up reinforces the notion that intimate relationships are fragile and fleeting. Those who have already experienced the collapse of an intimate cohabiting relationship generally have less hope that their marriages will last and more quickly accept divorce as a way to address marital turmoil.

Not true. If anything, I learned more about what to expect in a relationship and how to make things better during rough patches. (And now, I really want to know where this “research” is coming from.)

McNiff is fixated on this idea that the only thing that binds cohabitators together is sex. If that’s the only reason people lived together — so they could sleep with each other every night — maybe there’d be something to what he’s saying. But the couples I know who lived together before marriage weren’t the sex-crazed-maniacs that McNiff makes them out to be. They were people committed to each other for reasons extending far beyond something physical. Many of them are married now. Is it possible that some of them could get divorced? Sure. But my hunch is that none of them would blame their living together beforehand as a reason things went downhill.

I’d love to hear from anyone who lived with their significant other before marriage — looking back on it, was it a good or bad idea?

Hemant Mehta is the blogger behind and the author of I Sold My Soul on eBay.