At the end of my freshman year in college, I made one of the worst mistakes of my life when I moved out of my dorm room and into a house with my boyfriend.
When I think back on those years, I remember longing for intense romance that would sweep me off my feet. I thought that true love does not demand a commitment, it is freely given with no thought for tomorrow. I wanted someone to be at my side without putting my heart at risk. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
In the early 1970s, when I moved in with my boyfriend, there were only 520,000 cohabiting couples in the U.S. Today there are almost 4.75 million. Today, more than half of all couples cohabit prior to marriage, making cohabitation the most common way couples in America begin life together.
People say they live together outside of marriage for a number of reasons. Some cite economic reasons–why pay for two apartments, they argue, when we can share one? Others view cohabitation as a form of marriage insurance–a way to test compatibility and screen out undesirable mates before they say “I do.” Those who cite this argument are often the children of divorced parents who suffered untold agony when their parents divorced. Or divorced people still raw from the wounds of their own failed marriages.
Today more and more couples are choosing to live together outside of marriage, causing marriage rates to decline sharply. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, says the rapid change is remarkable: “It was scandalous a few generations ago. It was unacceptable a couple of decades ago. It is acceptable now.”3
The dramatic increase in cohabitation means that women today face even more pressure to move in with their boyfriend than I did. Yet research shows that living together is does not help people prepare for marriage nor does it help them avoid divorce. Cohabitation has come under the intense scrutiny of social scientist in the last three decades because the shift from scandalous thirty years ago to widely accepted today occurred so rapidly. Few people know the results of these studies. In this book I talk about the latest research as well as my own experience and the experiences of others.
Reason Number One: Living together clouds your judgment. When I moved in with my boyfriend, I thought I knew him very well. I soon discovered that it is almost impossible to see a person objectively when you are living with them. There just isn’t enough distance.
When choosing a life-long mate, you need to look at the person’s good and bad points objectively. Objective thinking is impossible when you are sexually intimate.
No couple can avoid facing the hard question, “Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?” I thought I could avoid the question by moving in with my boyfriend, but ultimately, I couldn’t escape. Once the “pseudo- honeymoon” was over, I wondered, did I want to live with this man for the rest of my life? Tragically, the answer was no. But trying to extricate myself from the relationship was not easy. Breaking up is always hard to do–how much more so when you are sharing your bodies and your home.
Reason Number Two: Living with your boyfriend may break your heart. Sex is a God-given gift intended to bond a man and his wife. Cohabiting couples bond with each other, too. I thought I could avoid a painful divorce by choosing noncommittal cohabitation instead. But I couldn’t change my fundamental nature. When the relationship ended, it hurt every bit as much as a divorce.
“When we broke up, I could not eat or sleep or work,” a woman told Mike McManus, author of Marriage Savers (Zondervan). “I did not want to get up in the morning.” McManus calls this grieving “prenuptial divorce” because the pain is so similar to divorce.
I didn’t realize how much I had bonded with my first live-in boyfriend until I left him to spend a year abroad in Norway. Once I was settled in Norway, I found it hard to function without the emotional intimacy of a live-in lover. I soon met and moved in with another man, this one Norwegian law student.
Reason Number Three: You may conceive with drastic consequences. I was meticulous about birth control, so I assumed I was covered. People who get pregnant aren’t careful , I thought. After all, my method of choice worked 99 percent of the time according to the pamphlet my doctor gave me. Imagine my shock when I found myself pregnant and living in Norway–six thousand miles from my family!
Tragically, I aborted that child, adding more wounds to my already damaged soul. I was too scared to marry my Norwegian boyfriend. Too scared to consider spending the rest of my life in an unfamiliar country far from family and friends.
A study of abortion trends confirms that my situation is not unusual. Twice as many women who live with a man outside of wedlock opt to abort their babies as married woman.4
Reason Number Four: Your decision to cohabit may cause your children a great deal of pain. My promiscuous lifestyle caught up with me when I conceive again in my early twenties. I couldn’t bear the thought of another abortion. This time I turned to God and asked him to help me live a pure life. God was faithful, but I still had to reap the agony of my past.
I still remember the day Mina, age two, asked me, “Where’s my daddy?” It was a knife to my heart. At that moment I would have done anything to go back and undo the mistakes that had led me to unmarried motherhood.
Later, I married a wonderful, godly man and Mina got the daddy she longed for. But the adjustment from family-of-two to family-of-three was painful. Sam struggled to become an instant dad, I struggled to let him parent Mina without my interference, and Mina didn’t like having to share her mommy with the new guy. Those first few years, there were times I wondered if our marriage would survive.
Even now I occasionally face painful reminders. I recently gave my testimony to our church youth group. When I practiced in front of my husband and two oldest children I could see the pain in their eyes. I almost backed out because they were so upset.
At first my oldest daughter refused to speak to me. Then she turned and cried, “Mom, I was a mistake!”
“No!” I insisted, taking her in my arms. “You were not a mistake. Not to God. Not to me. He knew what I needed to bring me back to Him. Having you motivated me to change my life. You were never a mistake.”
Right then she was too upset to listen. She took off through the woods, leaving me standing in the church parking lot.
Later she came back and told me she wanted me to go ahead. Her nine- year-old brother concurred. “I want you to give the testimony,” he said, “but it is hard, Mom, to hear about your past life.”
It was hard to me, too, to see that my past still hurts my kids.
Reason Number Five: Living with your boyfriend may destroy your relationship. A number of recent studies show that couples who cohabit prior to marriage have lower quality marriages, experience greater marital conflict, and have poorer communication that those who do not. The chances of having a successful marriage plummet when you cohabit prior to marriage.
Michael McManus, calls cohabitation “marital cancer,” because cohabiting couples have an 80 percent chance that their relationship will end. Forty percent break up before they marry, the other 40 percent divorce within 10 years of marrying. Even when the relationship endures, those who cohabited prior to marriage say they have lower quality marriages–they have poorer communication, poorer marital adjustment, and they abuse each other more often and more severely– than those who did not.5,6, 7
Why? I believe that living together sets up an unhealthy dynamic that is almost impossible to overcome, because the relationship between a cohabiting couple is based on power and performance. The partner who is unwilling to marry wields power over the more committed partner. I remember thinking, “I’d better hide my fears and insecurities and not be too clingy or he will leave me.”
One man candidly described the first few months of his domestic partnership in an article that appeared in the December 1995 issue of Details: “Neither of us wanted to be overrun by the other and we both made sure that we weren’t..”
According to researchers at Northern State University, a number of studies show that men typically cohabit because of “the convenience” of the relationship (“particularly the availability of sex”), whereas women cohabit with “the expectation that cohabitation will lead to marriage.” This unbalanced situation give men a “position of power” over their female roommates.8
You get close enough to see the person’s flaws, yet you are not committed to persevere in the relationship. We all long for unconditional love. The emphasis on performance is devastating.
Reason Number Six: living with your boyfriend will keep you from finding the husband God has for you. Several years ago, I took a business trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. After the meeting, I spent an evening with three male colleagues. One of them was a young professor I barely knew. When I asked about his family life, he told me he was living with a woman.
I had to challenge him on this issue. “Why don’t you marry her?” I asked. He didn’t marry her, he told me, because he didn’t think she was the one he wanted to marry. “Do you think that is fair?” I asked. “If you’ve decided that you don’t want to marry her why do you stay in the relationship?”
It was comfortable, he told me, and it met his needs for now. Besides, he told me, there is no one else on the horizon. Then looking down, he admitted, I’d be lonely without her.
Do you want to get married some day? I asked. Yes, he replied. How will you ever find your wife when you are living with someone else? We talked and walked around the rainy city until almost midnight. Later, Keith told me that no one had ever challenged him on his living arrangement. After the conference, he went home and moved out. Two years later, I heard through mutual friends that he was getting married.
Even while I was cohabiting, I dreamed of marrying a Christian man and having a godly family but it was only when I realized that I was walking down a road that led away from my dreams, that I found the strength to say no to easy intimacy and to live a pure life.
It hasn’t been easy for me to bare my soul, admit my mistakes, and revisit painful memories. But for the sake of my children–Mina and her little brother and sister– I am determined to face my mistakes. At times I have felt so ashamed that I wrongly thought I had no right to ask them to remain pure, when I didn’t. I have had to bring my shame to Jesus. He is the only one who covers our shame by his sacrifice on the cross and redeems our lives by his unfailing love. To be forgiven and healed, I had to acknowledge that my sexual experience had no redeeming value. I reaped only brokenness and pain.
My husband and I missed out on one of God’s greatest gifts–the joy God intends when a man and woman are physically united for the first time within the covenant of marriage. I hope and dream that my children will treasure that gift, remain pure, and walk in the light of God’s love.
Reason Number Seven: Cohabiting will tear at your relationship with God. Even though attended church in my teens, and knew the Bible, many of the rule seemed old fashioned and too strict. Now years later, I see that God our creator knows what we need better than we know ourselves. There is great wisdom in the Bible. Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (NIV).
Living together is sin. Habitual, unconfessed sin eats away at your relationship with God. Living with my boyfriend pulled my heart away from God. Gradually, I stopped attending church and reading the Bible because it reminded me of God’s standards and made me feel guilty.
I am not alone. A study at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and the University of Toledo found that cohabiting weakens any previous religious tie.3
I wish that when I was in my twenties, I had read an article like this. Maybe I would have moved in with my boyfriend anyway. I was so hungry for affection that the desire to trade sex for love was a tsunami that swamped my soul. But at least I would have been forewarned, and perhaps, just perhaps, I would have cried out to God to rescue me and show me another way to feel loved.
My prayer for you is that you will resist the enticement of easy intimacy and wait for the one God has for you. It is a decision I know you will not regret.
1D’Vera Cohn, Cohabiting Couples Are a Settled Bunch, Washington Post, March 20, 1994, “Never before in Western history has it been acceptable for unmarried couples to live together,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in the Washington Post. “It was scandalous a few generations ago. It was unacceptable a couple of decades ago. It is acceptable now.”
2 William G. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “Mothers, Children, and Cohabitation: the intergenerational effects of Attitudes and Behavior,” American Sociological Review, 58, (1993), p. 233-246 as reported in “The Family In America, New Research, September, 1993.
3 Arland Thornton, William G. Axinn, and Daniel H. Hill, “Reciprocal Effects of Religiosity, Cohabitation , and Marriage,” American Journal of Sociology, v. 98, (1992), p. 628-651; as reported in “The Family In America, New Research, April, 1993.
4 Finn Egil Skjeldestad and Jens-Kristian Borgan, “Trends in Induced Abortions During the 12 Years Since Legalization In Norway,” Family Planning Perspectives, v. 26, (March/April 1994), p. 73-76.
5 Elizabeth Thomson and Ugo Colella, “Cohabitation and Marital Stability: Quality or Commitment” Journal of Marriage and the Family, v. 54 (1992), p. 259-267; as reported in “The Family In America, New Research, October, 1992.
6 Jan E. Stets, “The Link Between Past and Present Intimate Relationships,” Journal of Family Issues, v. 14, (1993), p. 236-260.
7 Danny Wedding, Families, Relationships, and Health, in Behavior and Medicine, Mosby Year Book, p. 143.
8 Terry Huffman et al., “Gender differences and Factors Related to the Disposition Toward Cohabitation,” Family Therapy, v. 21, (1994, p. 171-184. ,
David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage, A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research, published by the National Marriage Project. 1999, 2002.
© EMSTALCUP 2005
Originally published as Redeeming a Broken Legacy, Virtue Magazine, Oct/Nov 1998. Stalcup, cohabitation.
A new book by Elizabeth covering this season of her life is now available at Amazon.
Crossroads Before Me