Millennials and cohabitation: Understanding motivations and ministering well

January 9, 2017

Recently, I sat in my office with a young man considering moving in with his girlfriend. I’m finding myself in this situation a lot. It’s caused me to consider the reasoning behind the increased cohabitation among Millennials, which is the demographic I primarily work with. There are many, but here are a few that were obvious to me:

The attack upon marriage. The direct correlation between the attack on marriage and the increasing likelihood of cohabitation is undeniable. At one point in time, a man and woman living under the same roof meant they were married. The cultural attack upon marriage has caused many Millennials to deny the wisdom of getting married.

The delay of marriage. Fifty years ago, if a man met a woman he liked, he would pursue her, and they would marry shortly after. With the rise of undergraduate studies (and increasingly graduate), Millennials are waiting longer and longer to get married. In 1960, the median age of marriage was 20.3 (females) and 22.8 (males). In 2010, that number had grown to 26.5 (females) and 28.7 (males). Research also shows that in 1960, 72 percent of all adults 18 years and older were married. In 2010, that number dropped to 51 percent of adults. Marriage is no longer seen as a right of passage into adulthood. It’s now considered something that can or will happen once other “things” are in order.

The cultural normalization of cohabitation. According to Barna research, two-thirds of adults believe it is a good idea to live with someone before marriage. Millennials, compared to Elders, are twice as likely to believe cohabitation is a good idea (72 percent, compared to 36 percent). Millennial Christians are hearing advice from others commending them for their desire to live together.

The cultural normalization of sexual activity outside of marriage. One doesn’t have to look far to find explicitly sexual activity on television, within magazines, music and on the internet. Millennials have come to age in a time where sexual activity outside of marriage has become the norm. They’re being persuaded to explore all the boundaries of their relationships with one another.

Rite of passage into marriage. Many couples that I talk with state they want to live together so that they can be sure marriage is right for them. They believe cohabitation should be a prerequisite for marriage. How will you know if someone is clean? How will you know their sleeping habits? How will you know what they are “really” like? Of all the reasons for cohabitation, Barna reports that 84 percent stated “compatibility” as the main motivator. They would even say it’s wise to live together.

Prioritizing financial stability. When I press couples who are already living together, most state that it financially made sense. Usually, one of the partners didn’t have anyone else to live with. This is a poor excuse and more of an indication of their lack of healthy community. Money is a legitimate concern for Millennials, and many times it dictates their behavior (like it does all of us).  

In light of all the cultural norms and pressures, how should we be ministering to this demographic? Here are some things that I practice as I’m meeting with people about this topic:

1. Determine their spiritual condition. Whenever I’m meeting with someone, I want to know whether he identifies himself as a believer or not. His or her answer will help me determine what advice I give and how hard to press. In my most recent conversation, he identified himself as a Christ follower. I told him that he could either continue to make decisions based on what he wanted or he could follow God’s instructions.

In the case of a non-believer, I want to first explain the gospel and its importance. As my professor advised in seminary, the session changes from counseling to evangelizing if the counselee doesn’t profess to know Christ. However, I also try to show him or her the value of research (granted, science and research conclusions can quickly change). The correlation between divorce and cohabitation has been studied closely. In the National Marriage Project, it was concluded, “After 5 to 7 years, 39% of all cohabiting couples have broken their relationship, 40% have married (although the marriage might not have lasted), and only 21% are still cohabiting.” If someone truly loves a person, living together is not what is best for the long term health of their relationship.

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, unplanned pregnancy also rises with cohabitation. Women are 20 percent more likely to become pregnant when living with their dating mate (a male usually responds negatively to this stat).

In all of this, I’m seeking to help them understand that cohabitation is not a wise choice by any standard. It’s not a good “test drive” for marriage. It’s seeking to reap the benefits of marriage without the commitment. Honestly, in my experience, it’s rare to talk a non-believer out of cohabitation. Stats and research don’t change heart affections; only Jesus can.  

2. Speak truth, and use the Bible. Millennials want you to be upfront with them. Don’t dance around the issue. Speak directly about how God would view their cohabitation. Call cohabitation, and sex outside of marriage, what it is—a sin. Remember, we walk a balance between grace and truth. Help them understand you care for them and truly believe honoring God is what is best for them. If they (or he/she) identify themselves as believers, then present a good biblical case for why it’s wrong and dangerous. Many of them have heard it’s wrong (from their parents), but they haven’t heard why the Bible says it’s wrong.

Three verses I use regularly are: Colossians 3:17, where Paul writes, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (ESV). I explain that Paul is addressing what he would consider to be a mark of being a believer—that we should strive to do all things in the name of Jesus. I then ask whoever I’m counseling if they honestly believe living with their girlfriend/boyfriend is to the glory of Jesus or a choice based on what they want. I have yet to meet one Christian Millennial who believes it honors Christ.

I also point them to Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Here, we see Paul addressing the inner thoughts of believers. If Paul set this as a standard for our inner thoughts, wouldn’t it be fair to assume our actions should also reflect what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable? I ask, “Does living together before being married seem true, honorable, just, pure, lovely or commendable?” Their answer is always, “No.”

Finally, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 addresses the priority of sex within the confines of marriage. Paul is highlighting the necessity for a husband and wife to have a healthy sex life. When reading this text, it becomes extremely clear that sex is limited to inside the marriage covenant. To have any type of sexual relationship with someone who isn't your spouse is sin. To counter this point, a Millennial may tell me they aren’t having sex. Most likely, this isn’t true, but if it is, then they’re either really self-controlled (not likely, considering our conversation) or not attracted to each other and have a whole different set of problems.

Many might think they are “OK” as long as they have set sexual intimacy boundaries. But, they’re drawing a line that God hasn’t. Intimacy goes deeper than just sex. They don’t realize they’re engaging each other in a type of emotional intimacy (by creating a household together) that is unwise and that I believe God finds displeasure in.

It’s important to avoid only giving “don’t’s,” though. I want the Millennials I’m counseling to know they have a wonderful opportunity to display real, God honoring relationships in a culture that discredits the Christian faith. We each have an opportunity and responsibility to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world (2 Cor. 5:20). What a wonderful time for believers to push back the darkness by setting a dating standard that is unlike the world!

3. Connect them with others. In some cases, we’ve talked couples into separating from living together. Now what? Does our help stop with advice and edification? If we’re going to lovingly present a case against it, we have to lovingly help them find somewhere to live. Find a older couple in your church that has a open room. This is what the local church does. We take care of one another and help meet each other’s needs.

If we want to see more millennials pursue a biblical sexual ethic, it will take thinking deeply about what motivates and influences them. We have a way forward in the gospel. They can both experience enriching dating relationships and honor Christ. We must be willing to step into difficult conversations and speak gospel truth. In my experience, Christian Millennials have a desire to honor Christ in their relationships, but they simply lack the courage, confidence or discernment to make countercultural decisions. Let’s refrain from generalized criticism and, instead, come alongside our Millennial friends and help them make choices that glorify the Lord and serve their good.