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Faith and Family: Cohabitation Couples who cohabit before marriage show increased rate of divorce, decreased satisfactioncomment (0)

August 8, 2013

By Larry Daniels and Steve Trader

Pathways Professional Counseling

'A Head Start' 

Jason and Hannah had known each other for many years before they began to date in college. Their families had attended the same church until Hannah’s parents divorced during her junior year in high school. After the divorce, Hannah’s parents had struggled financially, but loans and a work-study job made it possible for her to pursue her college degree and live in campus housing. Jason lived off campus in a house purchased by his family. As their relationship progressed, Hannah began to spend more and more of her free time at Jason’s house. They began to joke about how much money she could save by moving in with him, then talked more seriously about the possibility. “We’re going to be married when we finish school anyway,” Jason reasoned. “Why shouldn’t we get a head start on our future?” Hannah knew that taking their relationship to the next level contradicted her Christian values, but it would be so much cheaper and easier to move in with Jason. After all, she thought, we’re in love. And these days, everybody lives together before marriage. So it’s OK. Right?


Fifty years ago, couples who openly lived together before marriage were rare. In 1960, 450,000 unmarried couples lived together in the United States. Today there are more than 7.5 million unmarried couples cohabiting.   

Another trend is that fewer people in the United States are married. In 1960, 72 percent of all adults ages 18 and older were married, but more recent statistics show that only 51 percent of American adults were married in 2011, an all-time low, according to the Pew Research Center.

For Christians, these statistics about cohabitation and marriage are deeply troubling. According to God’s Word, any sexual relationship outside of marriage is contrary to God’s will (1 Cor. 6). Much research suggests that couples who live together prior to marriage have an increased rate of divorce and decreased satisfaction in their relationship than couples who marry without ever cohabiting.

David Olson and Peter Larsen of Life Innovations — a Minneapolis-based marriage counseling resource center — have studied marriage in cultures and countries throughout the world for more than 30 years to develop “PREPARE/ENRICH,” a program that provides assessments and tools for counselors, clergy members, mentors and other marriage educators. 

In the article “Cohabitation and Relationship Quality in Dating and Engaged Couples,” Olson and Larsen compare dating couples with cohabiting couples across a range of categories, including communication, conflict management and finances. 

Olson and Larsen found that dating couples who were not living together tended to score higher in most relationship categories, while cohabiting couples tended to score lower. 

Based on their assessments, Olson and Larsen suggest that the lower-scoring couples, whom the researchers call “Conflicted,” have an increased risk for divorce once married, as well as a lower rate of marital satisfaction.

Risks for children also increase when their parents are not married, a statistic that is even more troubling considering that more and more children are being born outside of wedlock. According to the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, about 24 percent of children in the United States are born to cohabiting couples. 

And recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that fewer and fewer cohabiting relationships result in marriage, which means that children born in these relationships are more likely to grow up in less stable households. 

Family instability is generally bad for children, according to Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and lead author for the report “Why Marriage Matters,” a joint project of the National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.

“Children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting households, compared to intact, married families,” Wilcox writes. 

“On many social, educational and psychological outcomes, children in cohabiting households do significantly worse than children in intact, married families and about as poorly as children living in single-parent families.”

Wilcox cites federal data that indicates that children living in cohabiting households are more likely to be physically, sexually and emotionally abused than children in both intact, married families and single-parent families. 

Children also suffer the consequences of multiple transitions into and out of marriage, cohabitation and single parenthood, Wilcox said.

“Such transitions … are linked to higher reports of school failure, behavioral problems, drug use and loneliness, among other outcomes,” Wilcox writes, concluding that family stability is important to positive outcomes for children.

Other research shows that children and adults in married families generally fare better on economic, health, educational, psychological and social-emotional measures. Several sources show that couples who marry without ever living together have:

  • increased income in the residence
  • increased sense of security, happiness and fidelity
  • increased emotional fulfillment 
  • increased likelihood of having health insurance coverage
  • reduced depressive symptoms — for both men and women
  • reduced heavy drinking and reduced overall alcohol consumption in the home, and 
  • increased life expectancy and enjoy better physical health.

As Christians, we know that God’s plan is for one man and one woman to be committed in marriage, not in a state of cohabitation. 

Truly the operative word in this issue is “commitment.” There are multiple benefits to being married, yet so many people are hesitant to commit in a variety of areas in our society. 

Those who are unwilling to commit to marriage may never know the joy and fulfillment that can come from such a relationship. 

It is important that we as Christians engage the culture in discussing this topic and share our belief about cohabitation as well as the wonderful benefits of marriage — after all this is God’s design. As in all things, we are to “speak the truth in love” according to Ephesians 4:15. 

When we discuss or confront this issue, it is imperative that the person know we care for and love them. This will create a climate where a person will be much more likely to hear, consider and act on what we share. Remember in John 4, Jesus reached out to the woman at the well. He did not condemn her, even though she was living with a man and had been married five times. Instead, He loved her and offered her salvation through faith in Him. 

She received Him as her Savior. Her life was changed when she turned from her sin and turned to Christ. Let us approach the issue of cohabitation through the Scripture and with the love of Christ.


Considering cohabitation?

  • Pray and seek out God’s will for your life as an individual and your life together as a couple. 
  • Search the Scriptures regarding God’s design for families:  it clearly is for one man and one woman in the covenantal bonds of matrimony (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5–6; Mark 10:7–9; Eph. 5:31; Heb. 13:4).
  • Seek out godly counsel, preferably from your pastor, older Christian mentor or friend or Christian counselor. “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Prov. 22:15).
  • If children are or will be part of the equation, the lack of commitment will affect them as well. Research has well documented that children need clear boundaries and consistency and that the marital bonds provide the best boundaries and consistency for children. 
  • Take time to consider major (and all) choices in your life. The decisions you make regarding your relationship today set the tone and direction for how this relationship will go in the future. Moving in with someone of the opposite sex without the covenantal commitment of marriage will lead to a weaker foundation.
  • Consider that God Himself leads by example. Marriage requires commitment. God commits Himself to us, for He tells us plainly He “will never leave us or forsake us” (Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5,9; Heb. 13:4).

To read other articles in this package, click here

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