Article May 13, 2015

Should you cohabitate before marriage?

Don’t you love a free trial—a no-strings-attached chance to try something out before you shell out your hard-earned cash? Most of us do.

When it comes to a new car, a test drive is a wise idea. If you’re thinking about investing four years and a wad of Benjamins into a college, it’s a good idea to spend some time on campus first. Before you sign on the dotted line for that new house, you ought to go over the place with a fine tooth comb a time or two. But what about marriage? Is it a good idea to enjoy a free trial without the commitment of a permanent arrangement?

Some people think so.

Beta testing your relationship

In fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 34 said they like the idea of a “beta marriage.” If you’re a non-techie like me, that phrase might not mean much, but it’s connected to the practice of “beta testing.” That’s geek for simply testing a product before its official release. If you’ve ever done a free trial download of software or been given a free sample of something and asked to provide feedback, you’ve been a beta tester.

In our culture of constant feedback, some people think that beta marriages are a good idea. This is an arrangement where a couple takes the marriage for a “test spin” before committing for life. They give the marriage a trial run and then decide to formalize or dissolve the marriage after a two-year trial period. Besides being terribly unromantic . . .

“Do you promise to love, honor, and cherish this woman for at least the next two years?”

“I do.”

Do beta marriages fit into God’s plan for marriage? Is giving the marriage a “trial run” by living together first a wise and holy idea?

Before I answer those questions, a few disclaimers:

It may be that not many readers of this blog are running out to sign up for a marriage trial run. And the social data isn’t all bad; 31 percent of young people surveyed said that they are still in favor of traditional marriage—the kind where a couple is committed “until death do us part?” But I still wrote this post (and hope you will read it) because . . .

  1. More and more couples are choosing to live together before marriage, including Christian couples. When I see a trend, I always want to filter it through God’s Word.
  2. Sometimes we give marriage a “trial run” in ways that don’t include moving in together. (For more on that, check out this great post Divorced . . . at 18?). Because of that, it’s good to remember what God’s plan for marriage looks like.
  3. As the culture moves toward wider acceptance of cohabitation, it is wise to know where God stands and to be able to articulate that well and with love. Those of us who are specifically in the trenches of speaking truth to the next generation (parents, pastors, teachers) need to look this trend in the eye and have compelling biblical reasons to choose to stick with God’s plan.

So, with that in mind, is it a good idea to live together before marriage?

The facts don’t lie

Here’s a snapshot of this trend.

  • 1950: Nine out of 10 women married without first living with their partners.
  • 1990: One-third of couples lived together before saying “I do.”
  • Today: Half of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation.
  • Since 1980: The number of couples who live together before marriage has increased by 1,000 percent.

But, cohabitation rarely leads to “happily ever after.”

  • 40 percent of people who cohabit break up before marriage.
  • Of those who make it to the altar, couples who live together are almost twice as likely to divorce as compared to those couples who don’t live together before marriage.

Why? What is it about living together that impacts marriage so negatively?

Simply put, it is not God’s plan.

The permanence and holiness of God’s design

We see our first description of marriage in Genesis 2:24.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus was teaching about marriage when He said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (v. 6).

God’s plan for marriage is a permanent merger. It’s combining two people into one new family through a covenant. It’s intended to endure. There is no way to have a “free trial” of the kind of commitment God designed to be enjoyed between husbands and wives.

Couples choose to live together to get a foretaste of what marriage will be like, but the very things that make marriage work are absent in that situation. Specifically, the commitment that allows couples to weather the trials of life together. There’s no way to fast track a lifetime commitment.

From a human perspective, living together may seem like a good idea. It allows couples to spend lots of time together. It is economically cheaper than maintaining two households. Most couples see it like a “trial run” to determine if their relationship can stand up to the day-in and day-out challenges of life without the total commitment that marriage requires.

Some will argue that they need to make sure that they are “sexually compatible” before agreeing to share a bedroom for life. But I’m just going to say it, “sexual compatibility” is hogwash. The Bible calls men and women to refrain from sex outside of marriage and enjoy it after. Even non-Christian researchers have found that the most sexually satisfied among us are those who stick to this plan. In contrast, those who choose to have sex outside of marriage, bring to the altar the baggage that comes with sexual sin.

Take it from someone who has been married for more than a decade, these are things best practiced within the context of marriage. My husband Jason and I had no money, terrible communication, and zero sexual experience when we got married. If we had beta tested our union, we might have quickly decided it wasn’t a match made in heaven.

But God’s design is that we learn those things within the loving protection of a lifetime commitment. The goal isn’t to have a perfect marriage from day one, but to grow into the people and couple God wants you to be together.

Jason and I have counseled many couples who didn’t wait to have sex until their wedding night. They bought the lie that sex was something best explored before saying “I do.”  Ten, 15 and 20 years into their marriage, the consequences of stepping outside the guardrails of God’s best in this area of their lives is still wreaking havoc. There is absolutely no way that sinning together before marriage can do anything but hinder the holy union God designed marriage to be.

Does your marriage need a “test run?” The short answer is no.

There is no such thing as “no strings attached” love. God’s design is for our hearts to become so tethered to our spouse that it’s as if we are “one flesh.” In fact, there is a deeper, mysterious, spiritual union that takes place. When it’s time for you to say “I do,” opt for the not-so-free trial by saying “no” to living together and reserving the most intimate parts of yourself for after you’ve made a lifetime commitment.

Note: Portions of this post are taken from a book I wrote with Josh McDowell, The Bare Facts: 39 Questions Your Parents Hope You Never Ask About Sex.