Co-Habitation: How Should We Respond? (Jan-Feb 2003)

By Matt Dabbs

by Matt Soper
January – February, 2003

The title of the article in the LA Times said it all: “Today’s Romance Reality: First Comes Love, Then Comes Cohabitation” (Sandy Banks, May 20, 2001). Banks, a widowed mother of three, had just gotten engaged and was surprised by how many of her friends saw it as a matter of course that she and her fiancé would move in together. By taking the “traditional” route she and her fiancé had embarked upon a road increasingly less traveled.

Banks, a weekly columnist for the paper, made a non-religious and thoughtful case for her decision, but the heart of the article was about how increasingly common and especially how socially acceptable cohabitation has become. Consider: The 2000 census data shows a 72 percent increase from 1990 in the number of cohabitating couples. A Gallup poll reveals that 60 percent of Americans find nothing wrong with premarital sex, and 52 percent say living together is okay. My conversations with fellow ministers confirm my own experience: When a couple approaches me about performing their wedding ceremony, in the majority of instances they have already moved in together.

Lyle Schaller, a noted observer of religious trends, warns church leaders to “Watch the changing attitudes toward marriage” (and the corresponding acceptance of cohabitation). “That’s the next big issue for the church.”
First, let me say that there are many kinds of cohabitation, the primary difference being those who live together instead of getting married and those who live together in anticipation of getting married. As a preacher for ten years, my experience in the church has largely been with young couples pursuing the latter, and that is the particular niche I am going to focus on for this article. Most couples in my experience who are actively or even marginally involved in the church do not intend to cohabit indefinitely; they are either planning to be or already are engaged. The question is, how can the church respond redemptively and faithfully to this rising trend in cohabitation?

I will begin by suggesting two responses that will not be very effective. First, it will not be effective simply to condemn it. By this I mean condemning it from “afar” through sermons and other blanket admonitions and prohibitions. I know this because I have tried it! In 2000, I preached a 12-week series on “The Sexual Christian” and spent two Sundays talking about relationships, dating, premarital sex and cohabitation. A few months later one of the cohabitating couples who approached me about performing their marriage ceremony told me how much they had enjoyed the series! To be sure, there may have been many couples who took the messages to heart but such “general” communication has its limits.

Second, it will not be effective simply to condone it. There seems to be a sense of fatalism in some Christian circles that “the horse is out of the barn” and this is a social norm that cannot be rolled back. Aside from being problematic from a Biblical standpoint this is needlessly pessimistic and, more importantly, just plain lazy.

I suggest a three-pronged response by Christians and churches as a whole:

1. Try to understand why couples are choosing to cohabit.

2. Educate them about the misperceptions of its benefits.

3. Point them to the “deeper yes” of the Biblical covenant of marriage while concurrently speaking truthfully in love about the sin involved. Let’s take these one at a time.

Try to understand why couples are choosing to cohabit.

The widely noted trend on college campuses is the practice of “hooking up,” wherein a couple (usually after getting drunk at a party) sleeps together without any significant prior or post-encounter relationship building. It is basically “sex for sport,” and one campus survey revealed that 40 percent of college women had “hooked up” at least once.

In the post-college young adult secular scene, the relatively standard practice is to date, have sex, go steady, move in together, then get engaged. Ask yourself this: If you’re a young Christian in either or both of these environments, wouldn’t you feel you were living a relatively chaste lifestyle if you waited to become sexually involved and/or cohabitate until you were engaged? Wouldn’t you feel pretty good about your level of restraint? Cultural influences have redefined what it means to be chaste.

Sociological factors

The preponderance of divorce among parents of college and young adult couples leads them to approach marriage very carefully. In a cover article in Newsweek magazine (“Unmarried With Children,” May 28, 2001), several authorities weigh in on the phenomenon. “Paradoxically, more people today value marriage,” says Frank Furstenberg, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They take it seriously. That’s why they’re more likely to cohabit. They want to be sure before they take the ultimate step.”

Furthermore, notes the Newsweek article, the average age of first marriage is now 25 for women and 27 for men—up from 20 and 23 in 1960. This gives more time for a live-in relationship to test a potential partner’s compatibility. “Today it’s unusual if you don’t live with someone before you marry them,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University. “Before 1970, it wasn’t respectable among anyone but the poor.”

Many young couples see living together as a kind of trial marriage without the legal entanglements that make breaking up hard to do. “They’re trying to give their marriages a better chance,” says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. “They’re not trying to be immoral and get away with something.”

Experiential Spirituality

The postmodern mindset values feelings and experience. Numerous couples to whom I have spoken, defending their decision to move in together, give an argument that basically boils down to: “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” Variations of this are “How can it be wrong in God’s eyes if we feel so close to God?” and “We’ve never felt so close to God before. We even pray together now.” When I point out the biblical prohibitions against fornication, they often shrug their shoulders. Such stan

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the Church

When I preached my 12-week series on “The Sexual Christian,” the single most frequent comment I heard was, “I’ve never heard this talked about in church before!” (This was not always a happy observation). It is assumed that people know the “Biblical standards” on this subject and will do their best to adhere to them. But we don’t make that assumption about stewardship and tithing; why should we make it about sexual faithfulness?

Ministers are marrying people too casually

Many ministers feel a vocational obligation to marry whoever approaches them provided they complete some kind of premarital counseling. To be sure, we don’t want to discourage cohabitating couples from marrying. But I wonder what would happen if more couples found it difficult to have a church wedding as long as they were living together? What would happen if more ministers conveyed to cohabitating couples that to have a church wedding with a Christian liturgy entails some obligations and commitments on their part? What would happen if more cohabitating couples faced the stark choice of getting married at City Hall versus in the church? Could such “tough love” be exercised redemptively for all involved?

The second thing the church can do is educate people about the misperceptions of the benefits of cohabitation.

We have to start by acknowledging that cohabitation seems so…logical. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on. You wouldn’t attend a college without visiting the campus. Why would you marry someone for life without a trial period of living with them?

This is where we have, almost literally, all the facts on our side. The sad irony is that study after study shows cohabitation to be of no benefit to long-term marriage and in most cases a hindrance. In other words, couples who live together before marriage generally are more likely to divorce than those who don’t, according to the Rutgers National Marriage Project (David Popenoe and Barbara Defoe Whitehead; June 2001).

Why is this so? Because when couples live together without the covenant of marriage they are training themselves to avoid commitment. They have the illusion of really testing out the relationship, but because they don’t feel bound to the relationship they tend to avoid arguments and troublesome issues. Of course, once you are married (i.e., bound) you find yourself having to address these issues.

Furthermore, in a related but less tangible sense, cohabitating perpetuates the adolescent mindset of pursuing gratification without investment or sacrifice. Not surprisingly, this carries over into marriage, where investment and sacrifice are central to a happy and long-term relationship!

Third, the church can point to the “deeper yes” by creating a culture that values and honors the marriage covenant while speaking the truth in love about the sin of premarital sex.

Many congregations have marriage support and enhancement ministries such as His Needs, Her Needs. These are valuable for strengthening marriages and helping to stem the tide of divorce. Our congregation also has developed a marriage mentoring ministry in which newly married couples who are willing to be mentored are paired with experienced couples who agree to meet four times per year for conversation and relationship building. The mentor couples are trained in marriage mentoring though Pepperdine’s Center for the Family. We are considering expanding this to include mentoring for new parents as well.

But moving in the “other direction” is vital, i.e., mentoring or somehow ministering to couples before they are married, to encourage them in the exercise of good choices and also to help them prepare for lifetime marriage. In addition, any congregation with a viable young adults ministry, and perhaps even those without one yet, should consider putting together periodic seminars in which special speakers address single people about healthy dating, relationships, engagement, and marriage. Single Christians are starving for teaching and guidance about how to have healthy romantic relationships and how to choose a life partner. After my “Sexual Christian” series a lady in our congregation approached an elder’s wife and said, “Okay. I get it. I understand the dangers of premarital sex and cohabitation. But now I need to know how to do it right.”

As for speaking the truth in love about the sin (and marriage hindrance) of premarital sex, this should be done as thoughtfully, lovingly, and clearly as possible. In this regard, silence is interpreted as consent, a sort of de facto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” culture in the church. Ironically, under the guise of sensitivity, we do a disservice to our young people, who need and want guidance and encouragement.

The church can respond faithfully and redemptively to the rise in cohabitation if we will see it as a positive opportunity to point people to the “deeper yes” of God’s plan for marriage.New Wineskins

Matt Soper lives in Los Angeles, California and preaches for the Culver Palms Church of Christ. He presented this material at the Abilene Christian University Lectures. He and his wife, Angela, have two daughters, Morgan, 11, and Alexandra, 8.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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