What’s Wrong with Cohabitation? By Drs. Les and Leslie Parrot
When we talk to engaged couples about increasing the odds of lifelong love we often get a question about cohabitation. That’s why we added a “cohabitation” section to the updated edition of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts.
Not so long ago, it was called “shacking up” and it was rare, about 1 in 141 couples.
Today, it’s closer to two thirds of couples. To put it another way, in 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.8 million.
Why? Pragmatic reasons, such as sharing the bills, makes cohabiting appealing for some. And many believe it’s one of the best ways to prepare for marriage.
So does cohabiting lead to good marriages or the polar opposite—increasing the likelihood of divorce?
Here’s what we know: Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages—and more likely to divorce—than couples who do not. These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.
Researchers characterize this effect as “sliding, not deciding.” Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.
But the detrimental side of the cohabitation effect is about more than just “sliding.” Women tend to see cohabiting as a step toward marriage, while some men see it as a way to stall marriage. It is easy to see how such conflicted, often unconscious, motives could be unhealthy.
One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse. Cohabiters want to feel committed to their partners, yet they are often confused about whether they have consciously chosen their mates.
Relationships founded on convenience or ambiguity can interfere with the process of claiming the people we love. A life built on top of “maybe you’ll do” simply does not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of marriage.
Perhaps that’s why, long before all the research studies were conducted, Paul wrote, “Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact … we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever.”