Cohabitation — romantic partners living together without marriage — is one of the most significant trends in family life in the last century, increasing more than tenfold since 1960, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 1950, 80 percent of American households were comprised of married couples. Now more than half of U.S. households are composed of unmarried adults — like partners living together, with or without children, among many other combinations.
More than half of American adults cohabit at one time or another, according to numerous government and private studies. One survey indicated 75 percent of women had lived with a man without marriage by age 30. (National Center for Health Statistics)
So is it a good idea?
Approximately 60 percent of Americans believe the best way to establish a successful marriage is to cohabit first. Marriage is considered obsolete by about 40 percent of adults, including half of all Millennials, who otherwise would be the age group walking the aisle right now.
By all evidence, cohabitation is here to stay. So is it helping or hurting the participants and society? And what about the children? Half of all births to women under 30 occur outside marriage. While in the past, those births might have hastened marriage, not so much now.
Cohabitation is the primary reason more people are marrying later in life or not at all, says ethicist David Gushee. People are putting off marriage while they launch their careers, but that “bumps up against” the traditional ethic that sex belongs in marriage, says Gushee, university professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University and McAfee School of Theology.
“Because of basic human relational and sexual drive, you can only delay them for so long with much success.”
The average age at marriage in 1950 was 20.3 for American women and 22.8 for men — lowest in the modern era — and held steady for two decades. Since then it has risen steadily to the modern high — 27 for women, 29 for men.
Theologian Scot McKnight says cohabitation is popular in a consumeristic society because “it is a trial-run commitment,” a commitment “with no strings attached.”
“It’s rare that a person is willing to jump all the way to the bottom of the valley on the first step,” acknowledges McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. Still, Christian churches should teach and model the traditional Christian ethic that limits sex to marriage, he says.
“There is no such thing as premarital sex in the Bible because in the Bible sexual intercourse constituted marriage,” he insists. McKnight says churches should publicly encourage attendees who are living together to get married.
But ethicist Melissa Browning isn’t willing to condemn cohabitation.
“If a couple is committed to each other, and they plan to get married, maybe they’re engaged, they’re saving up money to get married or there’s a reason they want to wait to get married, cohabitation can make a lot of sense,” says Browning, assistant professor of contextual ministry at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.
The search for ‘biblical marriage’
But Christians who advocate “biblical marriage” should acknowledge the traditional view of marriage is a recent development and only one of many biblical models, suggests Gushee and Browning.
“It’s not like there’s only one voice in scripture,” says Gushee. The Old Testament is a mix of cultures and models, including patriarchy and polygamy, and the New Testament is a mix of Palestinian Jewish and Greco-Roman practices.
In the Old Testament, marriage models condoned by God include polygamy (technically polyandry, allowed for men only), child marriage, war brides, politically arranged marriages, and the purchasing and gifting of women. All presume female subservience.
Marriage in biblical times was “contractual,” Browning says, often arranged by the parents, and for the purpose of bearing children. “You got married for a reason.” Sex before marriage is prohibited in the Bible, she acknowledges, but it was a double standard. Only women were required to be chaste because virgins were more valuable in a marriage transaction.
Browning says the most popular biblical model was “patriarchal marriage, where it’s between a male and a female, and the male has almost all decision-making authority. I don’t know many women who actually want to not have a voice in their marriage, even in very conservative circles.”
Patriarchy has been the dominant model in Western society, even though it’s only one of many in the Bible.
“There’s not a single consistent piece in scripture that we can point to that’s saying this is biblical marriage,” Browning concludes. Even if you picked one of the biblical models as the standard, “certainly those are not models that we want to emulate.”
“There wasn’t a concept of a faithful, loving, opposite-sex relationship that was equal to the way my relationship is with my husband,” she says, referring to the egalitarian marriage model that is popular today.
By the same token, she adds, because marriage in the ancient world was for procreation, “there was absolutely no concept of a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship in scripture.”
Although sex between males was fairly common — and sometimes considered preferable — in Roman culture during biblical times, either as a ritual initiation to sex or simply for pleasure, it was not likened to marriage because marriage was solely procreational.
In the New Testament, if there is a consensus model it is probably celibacy, Browning and Gushee agree.
Perhaps because they expected the imminent return of Jesus, New Testament authors, particularly the Apostle Paul, saw the simplicity of celibacy as preferable. Marriage was the second choice as an accommodation to “burning desire.”
“One way to interpret [the move toward celibacy and away from marriage] is that it’s a move away from the patriarchal marriage system,” Browning adds.
A biblical ethic of ‘just marriage’
Biblical Christians aren’t left without guidance for marriage, says Gushee and Browning. They can build an “ethic of marriage” from the Bible’s teachings about love and justice.
“What scripture does give us is an ethic for marriage,” Browning says. “We can take things like the love commandment and the understanding of justice and easily articulate a model for relationality.”
“With every relationship — married, dating, engaged, whatever — I’m in favor of taking a justice lens and applying it to that relationship and say, ‘Is this relationship just?’”
Gushee says: “You can develop an ethic — especially out of the New Testament with an Old Testament assist — that is covenantal, permanent and attends especially to the well-being of children.
“I’m more and more convinced that we need to emphasize the well-being of the most vulnerable in every ethical area, and that includes marriage,” he continues.
In her book Just Love, ethicist Margaret Farley advances the idea of applying love and justice to all relationships, Browning says.
“Rather than saying this type of relationship is good or bad, or just or unjust, she takes the whole of scripture and asks, ‘What are the conditions for just relationality?’ I think it’s a brilliant way to think about things.”
Browning, who studied theories of justice in her doctoral work, says people are tempted to try to simplify ethics into black-and-white rules — what she termed “category analysis.”
“It’s easier to do ethics inside of categories — ‘This is always wrong. This is always right,’” she says. But such an approach discounts the complexity of life and the priorities of love and justice.
The danger of hard-and-fast rules becomes clearer “when we think about the flip side,” she says. For instance, if marriage is the litmus test to say that a relationship is ethical, does that excuse a marriage that results in rape, abuse, violence or some other injustice?
“That’s where the category analysis gets us into trouble,” she says. “It’s better to look at individual relationships and create a standard or framework for justice in relationships.”
For that reason, and because prohibiting premarital sex is unrealistic, Browning says, cohabitation can be the best choice in some circumstances.
McKnight, however, is unwilling to revise the traditional teachings on sex and marriage in light of today’s culture.
“The Bible’s descriptions of marriage are still relevant because they are dealing with foundational realities that are every bit as valuable today as they were then, namely the honoring of a man and a woman in marriage, respect for one another, a commitment to one another through thick and thin, and a desire to raise a family in the healthiest environment imaginable.”
Still, he acknowledges that premarital sex and cohabitation are undoubtedly present in Christian pews, presenting a very real dilemma for pastors. You don’t want to chase them off, but neither do you want to imply consent, he said.
McKnight’s recommendation? “In a very gentle, sensitive yet firm way, have a long series of teachings on Christian relationships,” he advises. Without “putting anyone on the spot,” the church should “encourage people who are cohabiting to get married” — even having “a massive church-wide marriage ceremony.”
Browning has a different take.
“I don’t think it’s a great idea to discourage cohabitation for the sake of cohabitation,” she says. “It’s a category of prohibition rather than a discernment based on justice. I think in some instances cohabitation can be a terrible thing, and in other instances, it could be a great thing.”
A means to what end?
Many people see cohabitation as simply an additional step in the relationship progression — dating, exclusive dating, cohabitation, engagement, marriage. The legacy of divorce among Baby Boomers has left their children wary of the institution and skeptical of their odds. For them, cohabiting is a sort of “test drive” for marriage.
But not all cohabitations are alike. Motives and intentions vary widely, according to sociological research. For some people who live together, cohabitation is an alternative to singlehood — a substitute for marriage, not a precursor – and precisely intended to avoid the expectation of permanence. When that is the intent, the relationship often suffers, researchers say.
There is also evidence that couples “fall into” cohabitation. Couples interviewed for a 2007 study by the National Institute of Health says they began cohabiting without making a deliberate decision to do so, and without considering the option of marriage.
As most Americans have grown to accept partners living together, conventional wisdom says it’s a good way to prepare for marriage.
But that’s only if couples get it right the first time, and don’t wait too long, according to studies reported by various academic journals and government agencies.
About 40 percent of first premarital cohabitations transition into marriage, according to one government study. But if you cohabit more than once, the relationship is less likely to lead to a wedding and, if it does, more likely to end badly.
Statistically, cohabiting couples who eventually marry have no better chance of staying wed than those who jump right into it. But if their marriage lasts seven years, then the risk for divorce is the same as couples who didn’t cohabit.
After one year of cohabiting, a fourth of couples split and a fourth get married, according to the most recent government study of longevity (2007). After five years of cohabiting, equal numbers either break up or get married (about 45 percent). About 10 percent remain in an unmarried relationship for five years or more.
Evidence suggests cohabiting couples tend to be less happy in their marriage, less likely to discuss their problems, and twice as likely to experience infidelity than married couples, according to published studies in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
In defense of cohabiting, there’s plenty of evidence that putting off marriage is a good idea and early marriage isn’t.
Couples who marry early are more likely to live in poverty, have babies early and divorce early. The odds are worse for those less educated. And early marriage is more common among Christians who take virginity pledges.
Marriage and the vulnerable
While Gushee and Browning say governments should not try to legislate biblical morals of sex and marriage, they agree governments have a role to play in marriage — especially to protect the vulnerable.
The role of legislation is to “protect the common good,” Browning says, but that does not include enforcing “someone’s interpretation of biblical marriage, because it’s just that — it’s an interpretation.”
“I don’t say that our society needs to let everything go and shouldn’t be involved in marriage,” she says. Governments should proscribe “basic, minimal protections to make sure that those who are vulnerable are not preyed upon.”
That should include laws to prevent child marriage, permit divorce, and prosecute domestic violence and rape, including marital rape. Otherwise, acts between “two consenting adults” should be unregulated, Browning says.
“The most vulnerable here are children, who depend on the decisions of their parents, and abandoned spouses, who were dumped by husbands or wives who traded them in for a better model.”
If they also are born to young parents, the road gets tougher, Gushee says. “Those who have babies at 18, 19 or 20 are setting themselves back in that arduous task of building a professional career and making a successful adult life.”
While the average age for a woman to marry is now 27, the age of first births is 26. If you do the math, the obvious result is out-of-wedlock births.
One reason is simple — the so-called “oops babies.” There are few “accidental marriages” but far too many unplanned births — and usually to young unmarried parents.
One-half of births to cohabiting women in recent years were unplanned. For all women in their 20s, 69 percent of first pregnancies are unplanned. Unplanned births are associated with poorer social, economic and health outcomes for both the mother and the child, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Thirty-nine percent of young unmarried parents who start out living together break up before their child is 5 years old, compared to 13 percent of married parents who split so soon, according to a 2013 study by the National Marriage Project, a respected pro-family group based at the University of Virginia.
Education and income are two factors with profound effects on a marriage’s success and a child’s well-being. Decades of research demonstrates that couples with more education and financial resources have a better chance of staying married and providing a stable environment for kids. People with lower levels of education who get married are more likely to get divorced.
That fact is not lost on young adults, who seem to understand the dangers of early parenthood, particularly for those without stable employment and income. They tell researchers that obtaining their educational and career goals are good reasons to postpone marriage and parenthood.
Look at the dramatic difference education makes in the age of motherhood: For high-school dropouts, 83 percent of first births are now outside marriage, according to the National Marriage Project study. For women with high school diplomas, it’s 58 percent. For college-educated women, only 12 percent of first births occur outside marriage.
Marriage as covenant
All three theologians say the best model for marriage comes from the biblical concept of covenant.
“Covenant is an exchange of binding sacred promises made to each other in the sight of God and a community to bind future action based on present commitment,” Gushee says. The concept is drawn from the covenant between God and the people of Israel and between Christ and the church, he said.
A covenant is stronger than a contract because it covers unforeseen circumstances, says Gushee, author of Getting Marriage Right.
“It says I bind myself to you for life. So when things happen that are frustrating or difficult or unforeseen — like you get sick for six months or you have a job change that takes you away for a while — I’m still covenantally bound to you. So I am committed to working through the challenges.”
— This article was first published in the November-December 2016 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent five times a year to donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.