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Is Cohabitation the Modern Version of Marriage?

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According to the latest Census report, the number of cohabiting couples escalated from 6.7 million in 2009 to 7.5 million just one year later in 2010.  Living together has become today’s “normative experience,” with nearly 50 percent of young adults aged twenty to forty cohabiting. Moreover, the percentage of women in their late 30s who said that they had cohabited at least once reached 48 percent in 1995.  While increasingly common among college students and young professionals — even Prince William and Kate Middleton, who have just announced their engagement, have been living together in Wales — cohabitation is significantly more prevalent among those who are less well-educated and poor. 

For many American young people, cohabitation is considered to be a low-cost, no-hassle alternative to marriage, a “test-drive” in some cases, or more often merely an exciting fling of no great consequence.  Sadly, they have bought into the seductive cohabitation mythology.  It is commonplace to hear them parroting the following specious arguments: (1) Living together is a “trial marriage” to “test the waters” to see if the couple is “compatible.”  (2) Young couples cannot afford to get married; they need to wait until they are financially secure and their careers are well-established.  (3) A girl should be able to have the big, expensive wedding that fulfills her childhood dreams.  And on and on the deceptive fable gets spun.

Many blame the current economy for the drastic increase (a 13 percent rate that will double the numbers in only 6 years) in cohabitation — and it is true that there was a 10 percentage point increase in the number of unemployed men who chose to cohabit instead of get married (14 percent in 2009 vs. 24 percent in 2010).  However, the problem began long before today’s recession.  There has been a dramatic increase (skyrocketing nearly 1,000 percent since 1970) in couples who live together without marriage and currently nearly two-thirds of couples who get married have already lived together prior to their wedding.

The trend toward cohabitation is producing a cultural transformation that has profound ramifications for both individuals and communities.  Young people have been told that having sex is “no big deal,” therefore, moving in and living together without a commitment (a.k.a., no strings attached) is more prevalent, as is an accompanying casual acceptance of recreational sex.  Of American women born before the 1960s, a little less than half (48 percent) experienced premarital sex by age twenty.  But among those born in the 1990s who had had sex before marriage by age twenty, the proportion had  risen to nearly 3 out of 4 (75 percent). 

The truth is that only a fraction — barely 10 percent — of cohabiting couples are able to move on to build a strong, happy marriage that lasts a lifetime.  More typically, cohabitation is preparation for divorce, rather than training for marriage.  The two household arrangements (cohabitation and marriage) are decidedly different, and that is why the vast majority of couples who live together before getting married end up divorced; the divorce rates of women who cohabit are nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not.  Consequently, the majority of cohabiting relationships do not end in marriage, as was previously the case.  During the 1970s, about 60 percent of cohabiting couples married each other within three years, but this proportion has since declined to less than 40 percent.  The research shows that cohabiting relationships in the United States tend to be fragile and relatively short in duration; less than half of cohabiting relationships last five or more years.  Typically, living-together relationships last about eighteen months. 

There are those who see no problem with this change in household arrangement and family structure.  They argue that the quality of relationships in a household is more important than the “piece of paper” that constitutes, in their minds, the only difference between marriage and cohabitation.  Family structure, in other words, is irrelevant in their view.  But they fail to take into account the interaction that exists between the forms of relationship — particularly the degree of commitment expressed from the beginning — and the quality of the relationship that the couple builds based on their commitment to each other.

Our present situation is a product of a tangle of factors that have brought us to the point where more and more young people, because they have seen too much divorce and too many miserable marriages, do not believe in lasting love or in marriage.  Dr. Neil Clark Warren interviewed five hundred individuals, asking them to tell him about the marriage they most admired.  Nearly half could not recommend even one single healthy, exemplary marriage.  Little wonder today’s youth are trying to find an alternative to bad marriages, but they need to look at the evidence.  University of Michigan researcher Pamela Smock warns: “Premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and increased risk of divorce.”

Marriage Savers, founded by Mike and Harriett McManus, is having incredible success in changing community attitudes and teaching young people the value of embracing marriage rather than settling for living together with its predictable negative outcomes.  In the first 114 cities where they have worked with local pastors to change attitudes, cohabitation rates have fallen by one-third, compared to similar cities in that state.  In addition, marriage rates have gone up, and divorce rates have declined.  As the world focuses on the upcoming marriage of Britain’s Prince William and Catherine Middleton, young people would do well to look at the evidence and agree that marriage is the best, time-tested household arrangement for both men and women, and especially for children. Within the committed bonds of marriage, couples have their best hope for the kind of close and fulfilling relationship that most young people say that they want.

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