The Ring Makes All the Difference: A Word to the Wise on Cohabitation

My dearest Katherine,

Soon you will start high school. Already your classmates are pairing up into short-lived boyfriend-girlfriend couplets, even as their parents split and re-couple with others, marriage vows be damned. You are perceptive enough to see that your friends’ relational pursuits don’t serve them well, but often collapse into black holes consuming waves of emotional energy better spent elsewhere. You have also seen how their parents’ breakups have inflicted immeasurable damage on them and their families. The relationship landscape is bewildering territory indeed for a teenager trying to figure out love and relationships.

But figure them out you must, and the sooner the better, because your desire for male-female relationship won’t go away. It has to do with the way you are made. Of course they don’t talk about God or creation in schools anymore. They talk a lot about your future job. But that’s not nearly as important as your marriage. And although marriage, being far in the future, barely registers on your radar, I suggest you deliberately put it on there now. If you will remember that (1) God made people male and female, and that (2) he instituted marriage as the ultimate male-female relationship, you will have the right map for navigating the turbulent waters of adolescence relationships and continuing on to satisfying adult life.

Cohabitation: The UnMarriage
Surveys show that today’s young people do aspire to eventual marriage and family, but many of them are going about it in a counterproductive way – by living together as if they are married when they are not. The trend started decades ago in the Scandinavian countries. It picked up steam in 1960s America when rebels, fancying themselves brave, said marriage was “just a piece of paper,” and, fancying themselves hip, took advice from the Beatles and believed, “All You Need Is Love.” It exploded as their children, wounded by their parents’ failures, gave in in droves and settled for something less. When I was your age, it was called “shacking up.”

Today’s sociologists call it cohabitation, and before you lies a relationship landscape we might call Cohabitation Nation. Since the trend is a few generations old now, social researchers have been able to make some critical evaluations about live-in relationships compared to married ones. Here are some of their findings:

  • Weak Relationship Bonding. For cohabiters, there is no glue holding the relationship together. It’s more like the sticky strip on a post-it note. One tug and it comes loose.
  • Tenuous Family Support. Extended families often look ambivalently on the relationship and are reluctant to support or invest in it. The couple didn’t bother to make a commitment. Why should they?
  • Unfaithfulness. With commitment mechanisms non-existent, rates of infidelity among cohabiters are more than twice as high as among husbands and wives.
  • Financial Strain. Despite dual incomes, live-ins save less, build less wealth, and more of their children live in poverty than married couples.
  • Unhealthy Living. Cohabiters consistently engage in more unhealthy behaviors such as risky carousing and tobacco, alcohol, and drug use than their married counterparts.
  • Imbalanced Chore Load. Though on the face of it, cohabitation appears to be the more egalitarian arrangement, survey responses show that unmarried boyfriends contribute less to household upkeep than married men. (You would think the feminists would be all over this, but they’re not.)
  • Divorce. Cohabitation is an especially poor stepping stone into marriage. Live-ins who subsequently marry show a 50 to 80 percent higher divorce rate than married couples who did not live together first.

These, Katherine, are not moral opinions, but the tabulated results of decades of social science research. Glenn Stanton gathered, summarized, and catalogued them into an easy-to-read book, appropriately titled, The Ring Makes All the Difference. What they suggest is this: Although couples believe that living together will afford them the benefits of marriage without costing them the hindrances of commitment, as a general rule, it doesn’t work out that way.

The Cohabitation Effect
The conclusion that cohabitation strongly correlates with poorer relationships and higher divorce rates has become so substantiated by evidence, sociologists have named it the Cohabitation Effect. With the phenomenon soundly established, the next question becomes, Why? Why are live-in relationships so substandard, compared to marriage? Stanton offers two reasons. The first is the foregoing of commitment. This results in a highly ambiguous and conditional relationship. The second follows from the first. Because relationship boundaries and expectations have not been clearly defined, cohabitation becomes prime soil for growing unhealthy relationship skills. Two independent “I’s” with no clearly established vision of a joint future are more prone to self-serving, controlling, and manipulative interactions than a man and woman who have entered into a solemn covenant to become an irrevocably bonded “We.”

The ambiguity and mixed expectations among live-ins became especially obvious when a group of researchers separated cohabiting men and women and asked them individually to describe their relational goals and expectations. Overall, the women spoke of love while the men spoke of sex. One man bluntly spoke for many when he said, “I think in a lot of people’s heads, we are actually [living together] to have easier access to sex and to be with one another as much as we want.” Summing up the variety of responses, Stanton wrote, “Women are consistently more likely to see their cohabitating relationships as a conveyor belt eventually leading to marriage.” Guys, on the other hand, “were more likely to see their cohabiting relationships as the opportunity to see each other more often, have fun together, feel taken care of by their gal, and gain access to more regular sex.”

Marriage: The Consummate Engagement
Katherine, the feminists will tell you that for a woman, marriage is like slavery. They’ve got it all wrong. It’s the live-in arrangement that allows the man to have what he wants, freely enjoying the woman – her company, caretaking, and counterfeit conjugality – without having to become an honorable man first. It allows the boyfriend to evade the responsibilities of manhood and remain instead in a protracted state of boyhood.

It is marriage that establishes the relationship on the woman’s terms. It does this by requiring him grow up and become a man for her and for their posterity. Take Ashley. She told her boyfriend she would be happy to move in with him but they had to be married first. As Stanton put it, she “knew her own worth,” telling him, “I’m setting the terms here, Chuck, and the choice is yours. Take me as your wife or don’t take me at all.” He took her. They’ve been married ten years, now.

The ring does make all the difference. Marriage channels all that emotional and sexual energy into constructive pursuits – building a stable home and raising the next generation. Obviously, this is better for the two of them, but the significance of it goes far beyond them, expanding outward to extended family and community and into the next generation.

Stanton explained the powerful dynamic, “She makes him become a better man. She does this because she is a woman. And she does this by having her man tie himself to marriage – a durable, clear relationship where the level of commitment is high and publicly understood, supported, and appreciated. She does this because she has the civilized role of humanity inscribed on the deepest fabric of her being. She does this through demanding the man commit all he has to her. If not, he gains no access to her intimacy – physical or otherwise.”

Exactly. Holding out for marriage means holding out for the best. For everyone.

This article first appeared in Salvo 20, Spring 2012.

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4 Comments on “The Ring Makes All the Difference: A Word to the Wise on Cohabitation

  1. What an excellent, truth-saturated, Love-filled, Christ-glorifying article!! This is a keeper to share and share with others! Thank you!


  2. Pingback: Really Recommended Posts 9/1/12 « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason"

  3. Thanks for this post. I think what we really need to put forward is the startling statistics. Cohabitation does not set you up for marriage. Some people told me before I got married that I should “try it out” first to see if it would work. Then I’d quote the statistic and they would be shocked. “Trying it out” is just an excuse to drop the relationship later when you decide it doesn’t work. It’s an excuse to avoid commitment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Sexually Transmitted Unease: How Casual Sex Works Bad Chemistry from Good | Right Angles

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