Be Thou My Vision

Cohabitation vs. Commitment

Posted on February 4, 2011 at 8:00am

A couple of weeks ago, Starr and I were sitting in on a Bible study for high school students, on the topic of purity. At one point, the discussion turned toward dating, and almost all of the participants had personal anecdotes of family members (and, for the adult couple leading the study, themselves) who had known each other only a short time before being married. This raised the question: Why, with much shorter dating or courtship periods, did so many more marriages in years past result in longer-lasting unions than marriages today. This is curious, because this doesn’t really make sense, according to today’s conventional wisdom, which says that one of the secrets to a lasting marriage is making sure that you’re compatible with your partner (by living together for a while before marriage, for example).

About two-thirds of American couples today live together before they are married, and about 60% of Americans believe that cohabitation is the best way to establish a successful marriage. The late Dr. Charles E. Cook of Mountain Christian Church, who passed away just a few weeks ago, put together a great primer on the topic of cohabitation before marriage, which the church provides as a free resource on their web site (download the PDF here). In this pamphlet, Dr. Cook reveals a lot of surprising data, including the fact that, according to one study, cohabitation before marriage increases the risk for divorce by a staggering 46%. This flies in the face of the popular notion that living together somehow benefits a marriage. Cook matter-of-factly states, “The blunt reality is that no positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been found by any research.” He then goes on to speculate why this may be true; one suggestion is that, while marriage is based on a strong ethic of commitment, cohabitation relies on something else entirely. The difference, he surmises, is between two types of relationships: contractual and covenantal. In the former, Cook explains, “the individuals are ordinarily focused on their own personal autonomy – their personal interests, desires, and concerns.” Marriage represents the latter, though, and is focused on the best interests of the other person. Certainly, this fundamental difference in our attitudes toward marriage must have something to do with how well the relationship endures time and trials.

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