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Why cohabitation isn’t good preparation for marriage

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March 17, 2022

It was 1996. I was 23 years old, and nothing could’ve prepared me for our first years of marriage. Married life was new and wonderful, but I was caught by surprise at how inept my leadership was and how different my wife and I were. I was not prepared for the disagreements, the fertility issues, the financial pressure, the stress. What might we have done differently? How could we have anticipated some of the problems and planned ahead? 

In our society, many see cohabitating before a later-in-life marriage as the solution — a trial run before the big commitment. And it’s happening in the church, too. The prevailing thought is that getting married without living together first — as Woody Allen quipped in his 1969 interview of Billy Graham — is “like getting a driver’s license without [getting] a learner’s permit first.”

Research challenging culture’s embrace of cohabitation

A February 2022 Wall Street Journal article by Brad Wilcox and Lyman Stone captures the thought around this conventional wisdom. “[T]he majority of young adults believe that living together is a good way to pretest the quality of your partner and your partnership, thereby increasing the quality and stability of your marriage.”

Yet according to Wilcox and Stone, recent research challenges this assumption. Citing a survey of 50,000 women, Wilcox and Stone identify a significant exception to the trial-run perspective: “There is a group of women for whom marriage before 30 is not risky: women who married directly, without ever cohabiting prior to marriage. . . . [A] growing body of research indicates that Americans who live together before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to land in divorce court.”

There are good reasons why couples should share rings before they share house keys. Why? Wilcox and Stone offer three arguments against cohabitation. First, experience in cohabiting often leads to experience in breaking up — a pattern that may be more easily repeated in marriage. Second, experience in cohabitation may encourage comparison of a spouse with former roommates. Judging a spouse with a “you’re not as good as” mindset may more easily lead a couple before another kind of judge. Third, living like husband and wife, without being husband and wife, calls into question the uniqueness of marriage in the first place. What’s the difference — a ring, some papers, tax benefits? Any relationship of love is special, right? 

The right kind of practice 

But while Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that one’s religious loyalties may also play some factor in the longevity of a marriage, they missed one vital reality. The advocates of premarital cohabitation are essentially affirming the mantra that probably hangs on the wall of nearly every music instructor on the planet: “Practice Makes Perfect.” This is true — because what we do (“practice”) indeed shapes us (“makes perfect”). Even our environments exert their own kind of shaping influence. We are, after all, talking about co-habit-ation. Living together is habit-forming. 

Yet any good music teacher will also add this correction: “The right kind of practice makes perfect.” Apply Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” to the wrong guitar fingering, and you can have prodigy-level mastery of a mistake. Instead, you have to know the proper goal toward which you’re striving. 

The reality that Wilcox and Stone don’t cover — the truth that the Bible teaches — is that marriage is designed to be a loving and life-long commitment (covenant) between a husband and wife (and as Christians, we would add: “before God”). As I mentioned above, nothing could have prepared me for marriage — except marriage. The nature of the goal determines the nature of the preparations. The right kind of practice makes perfect. 

Cohabitation is not like marriage. They are different in essential nature. When a couple live together, there’s a shared mailing address, a shared bed, shared utility bills, shared furniture, and shared groceries. But there’s not shared commitment. And without this commitment, you’ll have shared living arrangements but no true analog, or preparation, for marriage. 

Cohabitation and marriage are also different in their results. Living together without marital commitment feeds the need to perform. Each potential spouse is always on audition for the big show. After all, there’s no pretest without a test — without evaluation. The so-called “freedom” of cohabitation forges its own kind of chains — the shackles of performance. If I mess up, this could be over. In contrast, the commitment of marriage aims to free each spouse to serve and also to fail. These divergent results mean that cohabitation is incapable of providing real preparation for marriage. 

The instinct to want to practice for marriage may be genuine for some, not wanting to repeat the marriage failures of past generations. But cohabitation isn’t the way to go about it. Instead, you should publicly enter into a covenant relationship that officially blocks all the easy exits, that clearly forbids all rivals, that frees the other person to make mistakes and still be loved, and that commits to all of this for four or five decades or more. It’s not easy, but with practice and fully dependent on God’s grace, it will get better over time. 

Champ Thornton

Champ Thornton, Ph.D., and his wife, Robben, live in Newark, Delaware, and enjoy being parents to three energetic children. He’s an associate pastor by day, and on the side, he is the author of numbers of books for kids and families including The Radical Book for Kids, Wonders of His … Read More