Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"The Cohabitation Effect"

Meg Jay is a clinical psychologist on the faculty at the University of Virginia. She wrote recently in The New York Times:
...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.

Researchers originally attributed the cohabitation effect to selection, or the idea that cohabitors were less conventional about marriage and thus more open to divorce. As cohabitation has become a norm, however, studies have shown that the effect is not entirely explained by individual characteristics like religion, education or politics. Research suggests that at least some of the risks may lie in cohabitation itself.
What is it "in cohabitation itself" that cause couples who have ostensibly taken each other out on test drives before saying, "I do," to be less satisfied in their marriages or more likely to divorce than couples that don't live together before marriage?

Jay doesn't approach the subject from a Christian perspective and I don't know what her religious affiliation, if any, may be. She suggests that one factor in the cohabitation effect is the casualness with which many couples decide to cohabit in the first place. They carry that casualness over into the subsequent marriage; they don't take their relationship as seriously as couples who wait to live together until after they've made their marriage vows.

That may be. And, if so, it dovetails with an observation made years ago by Pastor Arthur Rouner, also a counselor, in his book, Struggling with Sex

A married couple came to Rouner saying that they were both deeply dissatisfied with their sex life. He learned that they had lived together before they got married. This, he concluded, was the source of their problem: They had robbed sexual intimacy of some of its meaning and power; it was not a sign of their commitment to one another, only a recreational activity. 

From a biblical perspective, sexual intimacy is a gift from God to men and women in a lifelong marriage covenant. It appears to have three purposes: 
  • to bind wife and husband in an act of intense intimacy, 
  • to bring spouses mutual pleasure, and, 
  • sometimes, to bless the couple with children. 
When couples choose to rob God of the gift of sexual intimacy in anything other than the marital relationship, the intimacy is also robbed of its significance and its fun.

Something similar happens, I believe, in every aspect of relationships when preceded by cohabitation. 

Couples may believe that they're testing out their compatibility by living together. But cohabitation doesn't reliably prepare couples for marriage any more than watching episodes of PanAm prepares a people to be pilots. 

When couples cohabit, everything about their relationship is contingent. "I can always bail" is the unspoken subtext of their every day together. Often, couples carry this mentality on into the marriage and the result is the dissatisfaction or even divorce that Jay writes about.

Just three additional points.

(1) It isn't about the marriage certificate. I'm a pastor and authorized by the State of Ohio to, as the law puts it, "solemnize" marriages. But to me, this is just an additional service I offer to couples, helping them with a legal hoop. What's more important to me is that couples make vows to God and to one another binding themselves together as husbands and wives. It's not about a paper issued by the local court, but a covenant and a commitment involving God and the couple.

(2) Jay notes evidence indicating that "cohabitation effect" may be diminishing. If so, there are all sorts of possible explanations to be considered. But those will have to await further data and a later post.

(3) Some of you reading this may say, "But I know couples who lived together before getting married and have been happily married for years." I do too. And some of them subsequently became committed Christians who would never recommend living together before marriage.

But Jay's article raised the question of why the marriages of those who cohabit before their wedding days, a step many take in order to vet the marriage-worthiness of their relationships, fail more often than other marriages. I've offered my view.

What do you think?

Be sure to check out Jay's article.

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