Back the 1970s there was a lot of talk that living together before marriage was a “wise” thing to do. After all, said its proponents, “You need to try a shoe on before buying it” and “You take a car for a test ride before negotiating the deal.” Never mind that human beings are a little more dignified and complicated than shoes or cars, and that we don’t “buy” one another. Never mind all that, according to the proponent of this theory, we were supposed to bow our heads to the obvious wisdom of “shacking up.”
Further, this little bit of post sexual revolution “wisdom” was obviously something that previous generations had never considered (since they were all sexually repressed after all), neither had they tried it and found it wanting and thus rightly discarded it. No, no this was a brand new insight of a brave new world, and who could really argue that cohabitation was both sensible and “wise?” Or so they said.
But the dirty little secret about cohabitation (aka “shacking up) is that it doesn’t work like its proponents claim. Cohabitors have higher divorces rates when they do later marry. They are less prepared for marriage, not more prepared.
In a recent article in the New York Times (of all places), Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia shares some statistics and insights as to why cohabitation does not work. As usual why I share articles, the excerpts from the original article are in bold black italic print. My remarks are in red plain text. Pardon the somewhat cynical, ironic and playful tone of my remarks. But sometimes when you can’t cry, you laugh or play the fool.
Cohabitation in the United States has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past half century. In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million. The majority of young adults in their 20s will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. This shift has been attributed to the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control, and in our current economy, sharing the bills makes cohabiting appealing. But when you talk to people in their 20s, you also hear about something else: cohabitation as prophylaxis. (Prophylaxis is a fancy clinical term for “preventative,” as in “preventative of divorce.” And this is the dirty little lie about cohabitation, it doesn’t prevent it). I would also add to the list of causes: a general decline in religious observance, the decline moral standards, decline of the family, and the decline of maturity and ability to make commitments. While some will prefer to call my additions judgmental, it is hard to argue that widespread promiscuity and the unwillingness to make and keep commitments, having babies outside of marriage or aborting them, are signs of a healthy culture. No there is something basically wrong with us.
In a nationwide survey conducted in 2001 by the National Marriage Project, then at Rutgers and now at the University of Virginia, nearly half of 20-somethings agreed with the statement, “You would only marry someone if he or she agreed to live together with you first, so that you could find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds said they believed that moving in together before marriage was a good way to avoid divorce. Deep down I think all these young people know better and that pre-maritial sex is wrong and stupid. But there is so much stinking thinking today that it is possible to play games with yourself and rationalize. Pair this with the silence of many pulpits on such matters. I wonder how many Catholic teens and young adults have ever been explicitly taught by their parents, pastors and/or catechists that living together outside of marriage is a sin or that, as the Scriptures clearly attest, “fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” I strive to make this clear to the young people in my parish from 7th grade up. One of the tools I use is this list of scripture quotes I put together as I reason with them from Scripture: BIBLICAL TEXTS ON FORNICATION OTHER SEXUAL MATTERS
But that belief is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) 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. Oops where did these inconvenient facts come from? Imagine that, something modern being wrong?! Well, let’s at least appear smart by giving it a smart-sounding name like “Cohabitation effect.”
Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce….Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself. You don’t mean to tell me!
[Regarding cohabitation] most couples say it “just happened.” “We were sleeping over at each other’s places all the time,”…“We liked to be together, so it was cheaper and more convenient. It was a quick decision but if it didn’t work out there was a quick exit.” [This is] what researchers call “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….. Actually, the concept of drifting is a very important insight. Most people do not up-and-leave the Lord or the Church in a huff. Most do not simply wake up one day and dive into serious sin. Rather, more subtly, and thus more dangerously, they just drift away from God and into sin. The book of Hebrews warns: We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away (Heb 2:1). The drifter goes quietly, often imperceptibly off course, and often comes to his senses way down the road when the journey back is tough. And thus many young people simply drift from the Church and from moral virtue. Thank God for those campus and parish programs that DO reach at least some of them, to keep the drifting to a minimum. Thank God too for parents who take the spiritual life of their teens and twenty-somes seriously, and help to keep them on course. Because, drifting these days, leads way down stream and eventually over the falls.
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. Imagine that, thinking less of a shack-up honey than a spouse. How can these young people be so judgmental? And how dare they think higher of marriage than any other form of relationship people wish to dream up. Hmm…but they DO think this way. I wonder why? Could it be that deep down inside, in the conscience, under all the justifications, rationalizations and stinking thinking, they know better?
Sliding into cohabitation wouldn’t be a problem if sliding out were as easy. [Actually it would still a problem, a problem known theologically as sin, and sociologically known as stabbing the traditional family in the heart, making life very difficult for the children born into all the chaos or threatening those children by abortion] But it isn’t. Too often, young adults enter into what they imagine will be low-cost, low-risk living situations only to find themselves unable to get out months, even years, later. It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavioral economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.
Lock-in is the decreased likelihood to search for, or change to, another option once an investment in something has been made….Cohabitation is loaded with setup and switching costs. Back to the buying a selling paradigms again. But the point makes sense.
…[They] have furniture…dogs and all the same friends. It just [makes] it really difficult to break up.
I’ve had [many] clients who also wish they hadn’t sunk years of their 20s into relationships that would have lasted only months had they not been living together.
Founding relationships 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 may not feel as dedicated as a life built on top of the “we do” of commitment or marriage. Wow, you don’t mean to tell me after all these years that our ancestors might have actually been on to something do you? I mean I thought they were just sexually repressed and juvenile, and that we were liberated and come of age. You don’t mean to tell me that maybe previous generations developed the system of dating and marriage to help us guard our hearts or something, or to help us be more happy? Well since that is not possible, we’re going to have to get the sociologists to study a lot harder to figure out some better explanation!
I am not for or against living together, (but you ought to be based on what you’ve just said) but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake — or of spending too much time on a mistake. – Yes, facts are stubborn things…
Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now.” These remarks are excerpts of her longer article which is here: The Downside of Cohabiting
On a more serious note from me, the problem of Marriage and family in our culture is an ominous one. Frankly, it doesn’t take a degree in sociology or anthropology to understand that kind of crisis in the family we are currently experiencing is a civilization killer. The numbers regarding marriage are very alarming:
The number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 — a decrease of nearly 60 percent — while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million. To put this another way, this is a shift from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 U.S. Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010…
[In this Catholics reflect the general social trend]. In 2010, 53 percent of Catholics surveyed in the General Social Survey (GSS) indicated that they were currently married. By comparison, 51 percent of non-Catholics surveyed were married. [But this an astonishing drop from 1972 when 79% of Catholics were married. Among younger adults 18-40 the number is even more shocking: Only 38% are married!]
Some of [the low numbers] can be explained by Catholics waiting longer to marry, but the shift here has been slight. In 1972, the average age at first marriage reported in the GSS for Catholics ages 18 to 40 was 20.9. In 2006 (the last time this question was asked), it was 23.9.
Thus, the decline in Church marriages is more about not marrying at all than marrying older. [Our Sunday Visitor 6/26/2011]
The sexual and social revolution thrown by our culture is having its effect. We have sown in the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. And what seems most remarkable, even with all the data coming in, we have no will or ability as a culture to reform ourselves on any wide scale. As St. Paul put it so well well: Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and their senseless minds were darkened (Romans 1:21-22)
Thank God for the faithful remnant. It is hard to know where our culture will go, but as for the Church, though reduced in numbers, she will remain, by God’s promise and will we shall endure, even this.