Over sixty percent of first-time marriages are preceded by cohabitation, according to the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, which reports a 17-fold increase in the practice since 1960.
Cohabitation has become so accepted and commonplace that for many couples it is not the result of a conscious decision or even a conversation. Instead, notes clinical psychologist Meg Jay, more often it "just happens," as a couple slides, ever so surely, from dating, to having sex, to sleeping over, to sleeping over a lot, to moving in together without discussing goals or expectations.
Today, nearly 50 percent of women aged 25-39 admit to living, or having lived, with an unmarried partner. Most do so in hopes that the relationship will move to marriage. For most men, it is a "test drive" that allows them to postpone commitment while enjoying the benefits of available sex.
Predictably, women who acquiesce to an unbinding relationship set themselves up for frustration, disappointment, and objectification. Take "Jennifer," who told Dr. Jay she felt that her boyfriend was never committed to her and that she "was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife." Although they were eventually married, a year afterward Jennifer was seeking divorce.
Counting the costs
Contrary to the hopes of most women, cohabitation actually decreases their chance of getting married in their prime childbearing years, as a 2012 CDC survey reported. For those who do reach the altar, like Jennifer, there are increased risks of marital dissatisfaction, marital problems and divorce -- especially if they cohabited before engagement -- which carry emotional, psychological, and financial costs that far outweigh any economic benefits that might have used to rationalize their "decision."
And there are social costs as well.
As the incidence of cohabitation shot up, the marriage rate plummeted (and is now at a historic low) and the out-of-wedlock birth rate skyrocketed (now at a record high). So, no longer can one assume that a pregnant woman is married or will be married.
Instead, after pregnancy, more couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage according to the National Center for Health Statistics. And that exacts a cost on their children, who, the National Institutes of Health reports, fare worse academically, cognitively, socially, and behaviorally than children raised by married biological parents.
What's more, the cohabiters’ increased risk of divorce transfers the increased risks to children of fatherless homes, poverty, neglect, child abuse, and delinquency. And that's for children whose parents want them. For the rest, it's adoption or abortion.
How did we get here?
The trend in cohabitation follows a tectonic shift in public attitudes toward premarital sex.
In 1969, although the vast majority of people, 82 percent, reported having had sex before marriage by age 30, only 21 percent felt that was morally acceptable. Consequently, couples who "did it," even at the height of the Sexual Revolution, were much more likely to do so out of the public eye, as it were.
Over the next 40 years, as public acceptance grew threefold (to 63 percent) and a slightly vaster majority of people (94 percent) admitting to having "done it," there was far less social pressure to restrain it or keep quiet about it.
This sea change in attitudes and practices can be attributed to two things: "no-consequence" sex and a morally compromised Church.
When birth control and legalized abortion eliminated the “consequence” of sex (an unwanted child) for a woman, they shifted the balance of power in sexual negotiation from her to her boyfriend. The woman who, heretofore, held the upper hand in determining the sexual terms of their relationship, could no longer refuse her man on-demand sex for fear of becoming pregnant. Instead, as the sexual economy was upended, going from meeting a woman's need for commitment to satisfying a man's desire for sexual satisfaction, a new fear gripped her: If she "won't," she'll lose him to someone who will.
It is a tragic outcome of our meet-up, hook-up, shack-up culture that a woman who "doesn't" is at a competitive disadvantage with women who "do." Indeed, the prospect of being edged out of the romance market has quelled the qualms of many a woman who, in a prior time, could have successfully held out for a ceremony, a ring, or, at least, a verbal commitment.
Today, fewer women worry about getting pregnant than fret over a relationship that hasn't moved to the bedroom by the third date. For the rare woman who is intent on reserving sex for marriage, she can expect little support from her community or, for many women, their own church.
A failure of leadership
Considering that roughly 80 percent of the U.S. populace is Christian, at the above percentages, it is evident that a lot of Christians -- very likely, the majority -- are guilty of sexual sin. It is a result of a morally compromised Church that has failed to disciple its members, to the point of allowing sin in the camp to go unchallenged and unquestioned. The same failure of leadership drew a stinging rebuke from Paul to church in his day.
While the actual prevalence of non-marital sex among Christians is debated, I'm willing to bet that many of you know individuals who regularly worship, pray, read their Bible, and even teach in church, who are sexually involved with an unmarried partner.
Some among my acquaintance no longer trouble themselves with hiding what they are doing. To the contrary, with nary a hint of discomfort, they breezily talk about their apartment-hunting, house-making, and weekend getaways together, often posting the latest developments of their relationship on Facebook to a swarm of "likes" from their Christian friends.
These "posters" and "likers" wouldn't hesitate to call sex between two men or two women a sin, while remaining blind -- some willfully so -- to the sinfulness of their own sexual practices. A man I'll call "Kurt" is a case in point.
Kurt is a life-long Christian and student of the Bible. Over breakfast one morning, as he was telling me about his girlfriend, I was taken aback when he matter-of-factly insinuated the sexual nature of their relationship. When I asked how he squared that with biblical teaching, his eyes squinted and jaw went slack as if I'd asked about the burial rites of the Inuit.
After a long, pregnant pause, he said, "I'm committed to her!" as if that resolved any biblical difficulty I might bring up. I brought up a few. He was unmoved. A few months later I heard that he was in another "committed" relationship.
These are people who would consider themselves to be good Christians. They know their Bible, they are active in church, they are theologically conservative, and they embrace conventional church teaching, which, for the most part, they pride themselves in living by. Yet, when it comes to their sex lives, they have cultivated what Mary Eberstadt has called the "will to disbelieve" what the Bible plainly teaches.
The will to disbelieve may not cost a believer his salvation, but it will cost him, at a price indexed to his willfulness. As Jesus warned His disciples,
"The servant who knows the master's will and . . . does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded."
The Christian who ignores his Master's will and proceeds to build a relationship on a foundation of non-marital sex is like the man who built his house on straw only to have it burned up. Remember "Jennifer"? As to the man himself, Paul assures us, he will be saved, but only "as one escaping through the flames." That's a cost we should all want to avoid.
Image courtesy of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.