They shout at you from every supermarket check-out line in America. People, Us, Star, and assorted other magazines are packed with the latest on stars marrying, divorcing, or just living together. Sadly the behavior of the Hollywood set has its reflection in the rest of the culture.Any social scientist, of course, is going to ask “is there a causal mechanism here?”
Marriage in the United States has fallen on hard times. We have the highest divorce rate in the developed world and the divorce rate in the Church runs neck-and-neck with the divorce rate in the broader population. The interest in same-sex marriages is in part due to the impermanent, romantic gesture that marriage has become.
Whether the purpose is to “try out” marriage or to avoid it, Mike and Harriet McManus note in their new book Living Together: Myths Risks & Answers, cohabitation has jumped from 439,000 couples in 1960 to 5,368,000 in 2006. No pastor or church leader can avoid cohabiting couples in the congregation or calling to inquire about a wedding. According to the Barna Group, 25 percent of people living together say that they are “born again Christians.” We’ve moved a long way from the biblical ideal.
Cohabitation is so common as to seem normal as a prelude to or substitute for marriage. In the minds of many, “You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on, so why would you get married without ‘trying it on’? ”
That seems reasonable except, as the McManuses quip, “the cohabitation shoe rarely fits.” In fact, the statistics on cohabitation point to precisely the opposite conclusion: “trying it on” is murder on marriage. Living Together rehearses the grim statistics clearly:
Not only that, but when compared with married couples, cohabiting couples fight over money are more frequently, are more likely to be unfaithful, and experience more domestic violence. Living together while unmarried is a dangerous option.
- “Only two out of ten cohabiting couples are able to build a lasting marriage.
- “Nearly half of cohabiting couples break up before the wedding. Their ‘premarital divorce’ frequently is no less painful than divorce itself.
- “Those cohabiting couples who do marry are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who never lived together.”
Couples who cohabitate have their reasons and the McManuses mention the five most often cited: creating a “trial marriage,” financial considerations, a cure for loneliness, convenient sex, and emancipation from parents.
They also discuss the reasons behind the stated reasons: growing up in broken homes, lack of male commitment, cultural pressure, drifting into cohabitation, parental encouragement, living in denial of the statistics, and perverse financial incentives due to bad government policies.
It’s plausible that there is. When couples simply drift into a “a living together” arrangement, and can just as easily drift out of that status, the attitudes engendered may carry over into marriage. Since married life isn’t much different from cohabitation for them, the lack of commitment that goes with cohabitation may carry over.
After all, the only way your life is different is that you had a big splashy wedding, and have a lot of wedding pictures. Otherwise, being married isn’t really different from not being married.
(Ironically, big, expensive, splashy weddings have become more common in American society at the same time that having a wedding has come to mean less and less.)
Of course, any social scientist will have to wonder whether this isn’t mostly self-selection. Perhaps people who choose to cohabit are less serious about relationships, more secular and liberal (and thus more likely to be willing to divorce) and maybe just more selfish and self-centered (and thus less likely to make the compromises that marriage requires).
If it is self-selection, the question becomes “how do we encourage the kinds of attitudes among the young that are supportive of successful marriage, and adverse to cohabitation?”
That’s not an easy question, partly since it’s hard to see a governmental solution (although having a tax code with a marriage reward instead of a marriage penalty would help), and partly because powerful elites are hostile to the whole notion.
Perhaps the only solution is that people who believe in traditional morality should be as outspoken and brazen about their moral views as the other side is brazen about their immoral ones.
But anybody who is willing to embrace this view can expect to be vilified for it.