A Relevant Understanding on Cohabitation

There are two ways to do things: Hard-Easy or Easy-Hard.

If you take the easy-hard road then you are often making easy decisions that will inevitably lead to more difficult situations. But if you make the hard calls up front, overtime the road gets easier.

Statistics today suggest that 91% of couples, regardless of religious beliefs, are cohabitating. However, cohabitation means couples are starting their marriage on convenience. They are treading down the easy road, without recognizing the challenges ahead. At the end of the day, though, do we really want convenient marriages?

Culturally, the drive to cohabitat often stems from a relational belief that it will help them ease into a major life commitment. However when pushed, couples often admit their rationale is based on financial (two apartments are expensive) or practical (it’s a long drive home every night) reasons. In doing so, couples are ignoring the relational, emotional and spiritual realities at play.

(To be blunt: a concern with cohabitation is much deeper than beliefs about premarital sex. While cohabitation lowers some of the obstacles to premarital sex, if a couple wants to copulate they will have plenty of ways to make it happen regardless of where they live.)

This blog started out of a recent book Lindsay read and the conversations we’ve had over the years of counseling couples. Therefore, we joined forces in an effort to share some prevailing myths and realities that result from cohabitation. Due to Lindsay’s clinical training, we wanted to bring a relevant understanding of cohabitation.

For many young adults, the idea of NOT living together before marriage seems antiquated and a minority viewpoint held only by the extreme, religious conservatives.

However, sociologists, psychologists and other marriage researchers have found that cohabitation has a detrimental effect on marriage, regardless of religion, education, or politics. Therefore, it’s important to note anytime mainstream, secular research confirms something that biblically-based clinicians are also finding.

  • Myth: living together is a good trial for marriage to determine if the couple is compatible.
  • Reality: Cohabitation erodes the foundations of a strong marriage.

Sociologists have found there is a “cohabitation effect,” where thorough research has revealed couples that live together first are less satisfied in marriage and more likely to divorce than couples who do not.

Studies have found poorer communication skills, lower commitment levels, and greater marital instability in future years among cohabitating couples.

  • Myth: Couples are intentional in their decision to become cohabitants.
  • Reality: Cohabitation just happens.

Couples often bypass talking about the reasons for and implications of living together and just arrive at the arrangement gradually over time.

Most couples found that they were spending increasing amounts of time together that financially and practically it just made sense to cohabitate. Yet, there was no defining moment, ceremony, or official conversation.

Also, couples have lower standards for a live-in partner than a spouse. Because there is no commitment, they didn’t have to think through so many factors.

Therefore, it is hard for many, especially men, to shift their mindset from “Maybe We Will Get Married” to “I’m In This Forever.”

  • Myth: It’s a dress-rehearsal for marriage.
  • Reality: Marital commitment is entirely different than being roommates.

There is typically a discrepancy between each partner’s level of commitment, with each party having more/less to gain from the arrangement. In cohabitation, the person with less commitment has more power. The one less committed keeps one foot out the door. Therefore, it’s hard to get an accurate read on a relationship when there is a power imbalance of this nature. Some couples reported feeling like they were on a never-ending audition for a role as the other’s spouse.

Also, cohabiting couples rarely “test” out the real experiences that bring great stress to a marriage: mortgages, trying to get pregnant, midnight feedings, negotiating holidays and in-laws, saving for college/retirement, and merging finances (paychecks, credit card bills).

  • Myth: If it doesn’t work it will be easy to split-up.
  • Reality: Marriage is sometimes easier than splitting.

Couples often find themselves years into cohabitation without feeling a desire to marry or even continue the relationship. This low-cost, low-risk living situation suddenly seems hard to get out of.

However, even this minimal investment makes couples feel locked-in. The idea of starting over in a new relationship is daunting. Since the arrangement has been established on convenience, often couples will avoid the truth due to its inconvenience. Often, many cohabitating couples reach an age where they perceive that they should be married, which adds another obstacle to starting over. So, many decide to marry and ignore their doubts about the future of the marriage.

Several individuals studied said they sunk years into relationships that would have only lasted months had they not been living together.

Bottom Line is that there are more strategic ways to determine if a couple is compatible without cohabitating. Couples need to take control over their situation and not casually slide into a living arrangement, especially an arrangement that is not nearly so easy to slide out of. The beauty and challenge of a marriage covenant is that the couple commits to a life-long relationship despite the inevitable failings and flaws each person brings. Power is not hoarded by the one least committed but distributed more evenly. Marriage is not a contract good as long as both parties are satisfied. It is not a relationship of convenience, but of true commitment and sacrifice. These values cannot be tested ahead of time, but are part of walking forward in faith. It may not make financial, practical, logical, or cultural sense, but it is by choosing the hard way that the foundations of a strong marriage can be built.


  • Meg Jay, The Defining Decade: Why your twenties matter—and how to make the most of them now.

One thought on “A Relevant Understanding on Cohabitation

  1. Rereading this 5 years later and 20 years into marriage, I will share that Lindsay and I were engaged and had rented an apartment with a lease starting in June. Our wedding was not until late Sept. It would have been easy to move into that apartment together – in fact it was a two a bedroom apartment.

    However, for the first few months she stayed with a friend from church, until that friend got married in late August. As a result, I couch surfed at another friend’s home for the final few weeks of our engagement.

    I can look back on that decision after 20 years of marriage realizing that God gave us the friendships we needed to do the Hard-Easy. While it was certainly frustrating, (and awkward to call my classmate asking to stay at his place) and the pull-out sofa I slept on for a few weeks was uncomfortable. Displaying that level of commitment to my future bride – that I was willing to sacrifice convenience for principles – I believe set the appropriate tone for our future marriage.

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