By / Mar 17

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. 

By / Jan 9

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.

By / Jul 11

Marriage has become an increasingly complex subject. Do people still desire it anymore? If so, what are they looking for? Why are people entering marriage much later in life and spending so much time cohabiting before marriage? What’s happening with this important institution?

TIME Magazine featured an important cover story in June on the tremendous importance of marriage, exploring many of these questions. It was unapologetically pro-marriage. Let’s address some of these important questions, taking a quick overview of what’s happening with marriage today, both the good and the bad news, seeing that it provides great opportunities for the Church.

Family formation trends

Marriage rates have generally been declining for some time. This didn’t start with the sexual revolution, but the Industrial Revolution. That revolution changed many things: How a husband and wife earned their household living, moving from working alongside each other on the farm to working alongside other people’s spouses in the factory. Women had more opportunity to remain single and more options to sustain themselves if divorce seemed wise. It created a tremendous change in how families formed and functioned.

In the 40s and 50s, marriage took on an additional shape that had substantial consequences. Sociologists call it the rise of the companionate marriage. Couples focused more on their relationship, friendship and compatibility, rather than on how to establish a life, family and common welfare together. Love has always been a part of marriage, to be sure, but the companionate marriage made this paramount, paving the way for spouses to become each other’s primary source for self-actualization. Each existed to make each other “a better person.” This gradually led to the “soul mate” idea of marriage where one seeks and finds their one, perfect soul mate, rather than becoming soul mates through decades of life together. Ma and Pa Ingalls didn’t “work” on their marriage, it just was, and it worked.

While marriage is declining today as cohabitation and unmarried childbearing among 20-something and 30-something women are growing at substantial rates, the desire for marriage still remains remarkably strong. Nearly everyone, if they could wave a magic wand and drop themselves into a relatively happy life as a spouse and parent would not hesitate to do so. This is consistently shown through many different sociological studies. So why are we seeing these contradicting trends?

Why aren’t people marrying?

People are as pro-marriage as they have ever been, perhaps more so. They want to marry and stay married for life. How can this be when marriage rates are declining and cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing skyrocketing? Curiously, these two factors are directly related. In order to understand why, we must understand a sociological truism. Generations, for good or bad, are formed by the generation from which they came. Look at the kids of the Great Depression. They became the most materially prosperous generation our nation has ever seen. They worked hard, built a robust economy, thanks to World War II, and settled down into a comfortable family life. Their kids rejected their dad as the company man, mom as the dutiful homemaker, nightly pre-dinner cocktails and meals around the evening dinner table as sure as clockwork. Suburbia wasn’t for them, so they went to Woodstock. As they grew and settled down, great numbers of them followed their hearts, asserted their independence and got divorced. This turned their children into ping-ponging latch-key kids, bouncing from mom’s place to dad’s home and back again through the week. They had to let themselves in after school because both parents were working. These children are now today’s emerging adults.

This brings to our answer for our current cultural irony. These young people have been existentially scared by the tremendous family instability they were thrust into and it has no recent historical precedent. It is the mark of their generation. They yearn for family stability for themselves and their own children, but are scared to death they will mess it up – and their own children as they were – just like their parents did. They have no good training or examples. They wonder if successful marriage is even possible. So what do they do?

They choose to cohabit and do so for three general reasons.

  1. They are desperately scared to take to the plunge marriage requires so they just wade safely near the shore.
  2. They cohabit as a relational “place-holder.” Not sure this guy is who I want to marry, but he’s good enough to live with until I find that guy.
  3. This could be the one, so they move into together to road test the relationship.

Each of these still retains successful marriage as the long-term plan. If ladies cannot find a marriageable man who seems to pose no relational risk, they will simply live with one until they find that guy. If they cannot find a marriageable man to answer the tick, tick ticking of their biological clock, they will settle for becoming a single mom with a “good-enough” baby daddy, which is happening among most demographics. These are the reasons we see these seemingly contradictory trends in society today.

Opportunities for the Church

These seemingly insurmountable troubles today are actually a wonderful opportunity for the church, if we will only recognize and seize them.

  • Affirm their desires. There are more successful marriages in our bible–believing, faithful churches than nearly any place in the rest of our communities. It’s simply not true that the divorce rate is as high in the church as it is in the world. We must assure young adults today that their desire for lifelong marriage is both realistic and attainable.
  • Show them how. Imagine if you spread the word in your community that every Sunday night, couples married 30-plus years gathered in a casual setting to simply answer questions and offer encouragement to millennial and Gen-X couples. No topic is off limits and no judgments cast, as many of these older couples have gone through all manner of serious problems themselves. Do you think young people would flock to such help? They would indeed. These are the kinds of “experts” these folks are looking for. Husbands and wives who have done it, delivered the goods of a successful marriage themselves.
  • Teach a theology of marriage. Christianity has a wonderful story to tell about the wonder, power and mystery of marriage and we should tell it. This is not found in helpful tips from the scriptures on marriage. It doesn’t exist in a systematic theology of marriage. Neither of these inspire. We must tell the gospel story that actually starts with marriage on the first page of the bible and ends with a very different kind of marriage in its last pages. And God pursued his terribly unfaithful bride through the pages of the Old Testament and then sends his very Son as the Bride-price to win his own Bride. How the cross is truly a marriage invitation that we must either accept or reject, but we cannot ignore. How salvation is not just eternity in some undefined heaven, but living as the beloved Bride of Christ forever.

Our young adults desperately want what they were denied at home: marriage and even a real, meaningful faith. If we can show them with truth, love and imagination how these two go together so intimately, that is a message that will surprise their hearts with joy, hope and encouragement.

By / May 13

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.