5 Myths About Cohabitation

By December 31, 20093 Comments

Couple outside houseThe other day I ran across some interesting research on cohabitation that reveals a funny discrepancy between our culture’s beliefs about family and the reality of American families: While countless studies indicate that cohabitation is undeniably detrimental to marriage, nearly half of Americans believe cohabitation is actually good for marriage and reduces the risk of divorce. (USA Today/Gallup Poll)

To be honest I was not surprised by this disparity between belief and reality. I know a lot of people, including Christians, who moved in together for a myriad of “good” reasons. And like the statistics, very few of those relationships actually worked out. Either the relationship fell apart, or they got engaged but never set a wedding date and remained in an endless holding pattern. The few who did get married had some unusually tough first years of marriage.

What is frustrating to me is the culture’s inexplicable naiveté on the subject. If you ever get bored one afternoon and feel like trolling the internet for studies on this topic, you will be SHOCKED by how many studies, secular and religious alike, have found that cohabitation is bad for people and bad for marriage. Yet our culture persists in it, blindly exalting cohabitation as the wisest and most progressive new development on the relationship scene.

In the face of this worrying persistence, I put together the top 5 myths that our culture has about cohabitation, and what studies have told us about them:

Myth #1: Cohabitation is a stepping stone to marriage.
Moving in together has become a normal part of most relationships as they progress in seriousness. It is often considered the final step before marriage. However, a 2006 report by the journal Demography found that one-half of all cohabiting unions collapse within a year, and 90 percent within five years.

Myth #2: Cohabitation reduces the risk of divorce.
As I mentioned, 49% of Americans believe cohabitation reduces the risk of divorce, and an additional 13% thought that it made no difference either way. However, a study conducted by psychologist Scott Stanley at the University of Denver found that couples who cohabitate are twice as likely to get divorced as those who do not. Stanley also found that the following factors characterized couples who lived together before marriage:

– More negative communication in marriage
– Lower levels of marital satisfaction
– Higher marital instability
– Lower levels of male commitment to spouse
– Greater likelihood of divorce

A separate study by the Vanier Institute of the Family found that married couples who cohabited before marriage are less sexually exclusive both before and after marriage, and that newly married couples who had cohabited before marriage had much higher rates of domestic violence than those who had not lived together.

Myth #3: Cohabitation is just like marriage.
Though counter-intuitive, cohabitation is actually a lot more like being single than being married. According to a study done by Discovery Health, cohabitation does not reap the same benefits as marriage, which statistically averages better in physical health, wealth and emotional well-being. The study concluded that this difference was due to the fact that cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy and less to the well-being of their partner.

Myth #4: Cohabitation is better than marriage.
It has become more and more common for couples to live together or start families without ever tying the knot. Marriage is often seen as restrictive or out-dated. Others believe that marriage rings the death knell on a satisfying sex life. In response to these reasons, the Population Association of America conducted a study indicating that marriage offers dramatic emotional, financial and even health benefits over the single life and cohabitation. “Cohabitation has some but not all of the benefits of marriage,” said Linda Waite, the association’s president. Her studies show that married couples enjoy better health, more money and more satisfying sex.

Myth #5: Cohabitation makes no difference on children.
In the Gallup Poll study cited above, 47% of respondents felt that cohabitation made no difference to the children living in the home. 12% believed the effects would actually be positive. However, a study by the Vanier Institute found just the opposite. Due to the unstable nature of cohabitation, kids suffer the brunt of the instability, which wreaks havoc on their physical and psychological development. Anne-Marie Ambert, who oversaw the study on this matter, concluded, “Commitment and stability are at the core of children’s needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent.”

These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Study after study reveals the same thing, and none of the studies I cited are Christian or religiously based. But while these questions challenge us with undeniable data, they don’t answer the key question of why? What is it about cohabitation that changes the very nature of marriage so dramatically?

There is actually some debate on this. Some social scientists theorize that individuals who are less likely to value relational permanence will opt for cohabitation. However a lot of experts believe the act of cohabitation itself sabotages marriage. One study study published in the American Sociological Review found that periods of cohabitation led to more individualistic attitudes and values, which are contrary to healthy marital attitudes. Another study found “cohabiting experiences significantly increase young people’s acceptance of divorce” by persuading them that “intimate relationships are fragile and temporary in today’s world.”

As the Vanier Institute concluded,

There is some evidence to the effect that the experience of a less secure, committed, and even faithful cohabitation shapes subsequent marital behaviour (Dush et al., 2003). Some couples continue to live their marriage through the perspective of the insecurity, lack of pooling of resources, low commitment level, and even lack of fidelity of their prior cohabitation. Others simply learn to accept the temporary nature of relationships (Smock and Gupta, 2002). The result is a marriage which is at risk (Wu, 2000).

In other words, cohabitation sews the seeds of a mindset that sabotage marriage. Because our society treats cohabitation and marriage as basic equivalents, naive to the reality that they are profoundly different, what results is couples who treat their marriage the way they did their cohabitation.

All of that to say, if you’re thinking about moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend DON’T DO IT!!! Whether you’re wanting to get more serious, wanting to test-run marriage before saying “I do,” or you’re simply motivated by financial reasons, the negatives far out-weigh the positives. And you are not the exception. The statistics show that you are most likely the rule.

In a world where divorce is so rampant, why gamble?

Even though Christians are sometimes seen as backwards or prudish for insisting on traditional marriage, studies like the ones I cited reveal that God-honoring marriage isn’t about legalism or cramping our freedom. God gave us direction for our own protection. He wanted to spare us the heartache and pain that comes with broken relationships. He gave us the resources to build up our marriages and families and make them strong, so use them! Seek to please and honor God in your dating relationship, not because you’re super religious but because you have a Father who loves you, and you know He always has the good of His children in mind.


  • Emily Hogan says:

    Thank you Sharon for this post! I have similarly been quite frustrated with the ubiquitously positive references to cohabitation that I see in the secular media, when as you said the vast majority of the research shows that it is detrimental to relationships and to marriage. I changed my mind about cohabitation a few years ago after reading the literature while researching a paper for a psychology class in college (which I have posted as my “website”). Thanks for broadcasting this much-overlooked research!

  • Brett says:

    Just wanted to say that I’ve seen several of your posts on Revelife this past year. You do an excellent job of sharing how to pursue your faith in a daily and practical way. Though your focus is certainly from and for women, your words have high spiritual and practical value for men, as well.
    I pray you a Spirit blessed New Year.

  • Sharon says:

    Thanks Brett! I’ve got quite a number of guy readers so I try to keep you all in mind too when I write. Thanks for the feedback and encouragement!

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