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Thursday, July 25, 2002

By Anne Stover

According to a new report issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics the probability of a first marriage ending in separation or divorce within 5 years is 20 percent while the probability of a premarital cohabitation breaking up within 5 years is 49 percent. After 10 years, the probability of a first marriage ending is 33 percent, compared with 62 percent for cohabitation.

Yet, cohabitation is an increasingly popular lifestyle for romantically involved couples. The Beverly LaHaye Institute (BLI) has tracked the upward trend toward cohabitation –an increase of over 72% since 1990 and at least one-third have children. In Gaining Ground: A Profile of American Women in the Twentieth Century, BLI reports that “in 1998 there were more than 10 times as many women cohabiting as in 1960. If the present trends continue, the number will more than double by 2010.” Young people are also increasingly supportive of unmarried cohabitation as a way to “test the waters” before tying the knot. A recent survey of high school seniors (Monitoring the Future 2000) found that 66 percent of boys and 61.3 percent of girls “agree” or “mostly agree” with the statement that “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married to find out whether they really get along.”

Although half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, young people still desire a marriage relationship and expect “one day” to be married. According to a report released last year by the Independent Women’s Forum, 83 percent of college women agreed, “Being married is a very important goal for me.” However, many young adults and couples are using the wrong means of finding a suitable marriage partner.

Many teenagers and young adults have seen how families are ravaged by divorce, and have likely experienced parental divorce in their own family or in a family to whom they are close. They do not want to make the mistakes their parents made, and are wary of committing to a marriage too quickly, or of finding themselves in the same situations as their parents. Reports issued by the National Marriage Project find that people who cohabit are more likely to come from broken homes. Young adults who experience parental divorce, fatherlessness, or high levels of marital discord during childhood are more likely to cohabit than children who grew up in families with married parents who got along. Young people see cohabitation as a trial period before marriage, a way to work out some of the kinks before committing to a marriage.

Cohabitation may seem like a helpful idea; however, its lack of commitment does more harm than good. Commitment, the major ingredient for a successful relationship, is also the ingredient that marriages ending in divorce lack. Cohabitation gives the couple a chance to “play house” before deciding to live in a married household. Cohabitation is just playing-there is no commitment. BLI research indicates that among cohabiting couples, break-up is the norm; in fact cohabiting relationships usually last only 18 months. In a marriage relationship a man and woman are committed to love and care for each other even during the times that they may not like each other. If one person gets upset in the cohabiting household it is much easier for him or her to box everything up and leave than for a married person to do the same thing. In marriage there are promises to keep; in cohabitation there are no legal strings attached. Thus, divorce is a messier process than just moving out; however the emotional fallout can be just as bad or worse. If there are children involved, the damage is incalculable.

The lack of commitment within a cohabiting relationship is due to each person pursuing his or her own selfish desires. Cohabitation allows the couple to each seek primarily his or her own self-fulfillment-each person can still remain financially independent while benefiting from having the companionship of a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend. The State of our Unions: Why Men Won’t Commit, a 2002 report issued by the National Marriage Project finds that cohabiting actually discourages marriage because men receive benefits without obligations, and there is no financial risk of divorce. Ultimately, cohabitators are more dedicated to their own personal autonomy than the commitment required for a lasting relationship; otherwise the couple would be married.

The same report also states, “No evidence has been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who don’t.” In fact, Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, BLI’s Senior Fellow reports that cohabitation is a recipe for failed marriages. She said, “men and women who favor cohabiting are likely to be less committed to the idea of marriage; furthermore, there is apparently something about the experience of cohabiting that has a negative effect on future marital stability. It is illogical to think that a marriage could start out stronger after a period of cohabiting because the very thing that makes a marriage strong-commitment between a man and a woman-is missing from a cohabiting relationship. The research is unequivocal, married people feel more fulfilled in their lives financially, emotionally, sexually, and physically.” People in marriages also have happier and more successful children than those who remain single, cohabit, or get divorced, according to The Case for Marriage, by Maggie Gallagher and Linda J. Waite. If in fact there is serious commitment between a man and a woman, then there should be no reason to cohabit outside of a marriage relationship. Just get married!


Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D. BLI’s Senior Fellow, is a member of the DC-Based Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking, the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Task Force Against Abuse of Women and Children and Concerned Women for America’s policy director for sexual trafficking issues. Anne Stover, a Senior at Asbury College, is a summer intern at the Beverly LaHaye Institute.

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