Divorce Revolution Spawns the Cohabitation Generation

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Divorce Revolution Spawns the Cohabitation Generation

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There was an outside chance 30 years ago that a youngster might know a child from a home broken by divorce. Nowadays there is an outside chance that a youngster might know a child from a home not broken by divorce. Children living at home with their married biological parents are increasingly oddities.

Are these statements hyperbole? Maybe. Maybe not. A quiet but phenomenal change has swept through Western civilization. It's so quiet few seem to know about it. Fewer still seem to think it matters.

Over the course of the last few decades, societal norms have evolved from viewing divorce as a stigma to seeing it as normal, natural and often necessary and desirable. Sociologists call this change in attitude the divorce revolution.

The children of the divorce revolution don't buy the cavalier philosophy that divorce is normal. They are taking steps that will—they think—help them avoid the pain and other costs associated with broken marriages. In short, the divorce revolution has spawned the cohabitation generation.

Unmarried cohabitation, or living together, is the status of couples who are not married to each other, but are sexual partners sharing a household. God reveals that sexual relations outside of marriage are harmful and damaging: "Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18 1 Corinthians 6:18Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.
American King James Version×
, emphasis added throughout).

Why? What does God know that people lately have been discovering the hard way?

Far from insignificant, the trend toward living together is nothing short of revolutionary. In the United States about 11 percent of couples lived together before marriage between 1965 and 1974; 44 percent cohabited before marriage between 1980 and 1990; more than 50 percent of couples marrying today lived together before marriage. Almost 60 percent of American high-school seniors agreed or mostly agreed with the survey statement that cohabiting is usually a good way to prepare for marriage.

In 1970 the number of people living together without marriage was 523,000. Today the number exceeds four million. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the rate of people cohabiting has increased by some 700 percent since 1970 and number of couples with children in the home increased almost 550 percent from 1970 to 1994. Marriage statistics are equally shocking. The U.S. marriage rate has dropped 43 percent over the past four decades to its lowest point ever.

Why young people choose to live together

Why has the rate of marriages dropped? What has caused this revolution? In large part, it's a result of the divorce revolution, aided by a general loosening of attitudes toward morality. Having witnessed and experienced firsthand the negative results of divorce, today's youth want to avoid them. According to a Rutgers University study, "For today's young adults, the first generation to come of age during the divorce revolution, living together seems like a good way to achieve some of the benefits of marriage and avoid the risk of divorce ... According to surveys, most young people say it is a good idea to live with a person before marrying" (David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Should We Live Together? What young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage: A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research," The National Marriage Project: The Next Generation Series).

They believe that cohabiting couples who eventually marry will have stronger marriages for their having lived together first. Cohabitation, they reason, enables them to get to know each other much better than people who enter into marriage without first living together. Then, if things don't work out, the relationship can be broken without the hassle of either legal procedures or religious permission.

They assume many divorces will be avoided by starting relationships with a trial period of living together. Cohabiting, they believe, will provide opportunity for the unmarried man or woman to experiment enough that he or she will find the ideal match before eventually entering into marriage.

That's not to say that all young adults have the same reasons for cohabiting. Some live together with no intention of marrying. Others live together briefly before marrying each other. Still others see cohabiting with various partners as preparation for marriage with someone—eventually.

Other reasons are often cited. It is claimed that cohabitation provides economic benefits. Marin Clarkberg, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, addressed cohabitation in the March issue of the scholarly journal Social Forces (Vol. 77, No. 3). Expressing the popular view, she wrote: "For those unsure about their economic prospects, living together and pooling resources in the short run may be a smarter strategy than simply living on one's own while waiting to mature into marriage material" ("Money, Jobs Decide Who Cohabits or Marries," Cornell University, 1999, www.newswise.com).

Young adults perceive the idea that living together is a more progressive, realistic approach to today's world than old, repressive, Victorian attitudes toward intimacy.

The feminist movement, with its theme of reversing male dominance of the American family, encourages cohabitation instead of traditional marriage roles. The modern approach, it is argued, allows a woman more control, more freedom and less subjection to men.

Included in the report were the results of a survey of a group of young adults about their views of living together and marriage. All were single, from New Jersey and 20-something.

"[Most] of them thought marriage should occur [only after] there are children, and children should come after a house is bought and a couple has a good annual income—around $75,000 in the women's views ... [The] young people saw ... cohabitation as a good way to test compatibility, detect character strengths and weaknesses, and arrange certain household economies ... Women preferred short-term cohabitation, saying they could determine the man's suitability for marriage in a few months. In contrast, many of the man said they could cohabit indefinitely" (Cheryl Wetzstein, "Cohabitation No Formula for Future Bliss in Marriage," The Washington Times, March 30, 1999).

What do the results show?

In spite of such a vast increase in numbers of couples cohabiting without benefit of marriage, and in spite of the many reasons offered for their behavior, evidence is sorely lacking that cohabitation makes any positive contribution to marriage whatsoever.

In fact, the evidence runs strongly to the contrary, that cohabitation is detrimental. Researchers have found that living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce after marriage. "Research conducted at Yale and Columbia University and published in American Sociological Review found, 'the overall association between premarital cohabitation and subsequent marital stability is striking. The dissolution [divorce] rates of women who cohabit premaritally with their future spouse are, on average, nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not' " (Neil Bennett, "Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability," American Sociological Review 53, p. 127-138).David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the Rutgers University study concluded that "virtually all research on the topic has determined that the chances of divorce ending a marriage preceded by cohabitation are significantly greater than for a marriage not preceded by cohabitation. A 1992 study of 3,300 cases, for example, based on the 1987 National Survey of Families and Households, found that in their marriages prior [cohabitants] 'are estimated to have a hazard of dissolution [divorce] that is about 46 percent higher than for [noncohabitants].'"

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions, that those who live together before marriage are 50 to 100 percent more likely to divorce than those who wait until marriage.

Researchers have also found that living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence for women and the risk of physical and sexual abuse for children. "One study in Great Britain ... found that, compared to children living with married biological parents, children living with cohabiting but unmarried biological parents are 20 times more likely to be subject to child abuse, and those living with a mother and a cohabiting boyfriend who is not the father face an increased risk of 33 times" (Popenoe and Whitehead).

A similar pattern was found in another American study. The Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshirefound that 'cohabitants "are much more violent than marrieds." More specifically, the rate of violence among cohabiting couples was twice as high as for marrieds and the rate for "severe" violence was found to be nearly five times greater (Kersti Yllo and Murray Straus, "Interpersonal Violence Among Married and Cohabiting Couples," Family Relations 30, pp. 339-347, emphasis added).

People who live together are much more likely to enter unsuccessful cohabiting relationships again. They become serial cohabitants. Leaving one relationship apparently makes it easier to leave another—rather than providing the stability many say they seek.

Fully three quarters the number of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16, whereas only about a third of the children born to married parents face a similar trauma.

Chances that cohabiting mothers will marry their children's fathers are declining. The most recent statistics show that it will happen in only 44 percent of cases.

Economic relationships of cohabitants are often tenuous. Depression in cohabiting couples runs more than three times the rate among married couples. Overall, unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness and well-being than married couples.

So, rather than providing the benefits of marriage without the problems, cohabitation delivers the opposite: the difficulties of poor marriage relationships without many of the benefits of good ones.

Religion ineffective in reversing the trend

In the United States of 30 years ago, people who lived together unmarried were said to be "living in sin," but American society is rapidly distancing itself from that religious perspective. Many young people associate getting married before living together with values of a past, out-of-date generation—values that are not for the current generation. They prefer not to worry about having to discuss their relationship with a clergyman either at the beginning or dissolution of their union.

"Underlying all of these trends is the broad cultural shift from a more religious society where marriage was considered the bedrock of civilization and people were imbued with a strong sense of social conformity and tradition, to a more secular society focused on individual autonomy and self-invention. This cultural rejection of traditional institutional and moral authority, evident in all of the advanced, Western societies, often has had 'freedom of choice' as its theme and the acceptance of 'alternative lifestyles' as its message" (Popenoe and Whitehead).

Men have long misappropriated religion as authority to suppress and abuse women. Seizing advantage from reactions to those wrongs, the feminist movement has influenced religious thought and practices to be more accepting of cohabitation. The feminist angle is that living together is a more positive arrangement for women. (As noted above, research shows that just the opposite is true: The incidence of abuse increases.)

Religion ought to take the lead in teaching and encouraging the practice of balanced, biblically based roles for husbands and wives to reverse further erosion of marriage. Instead, some religions rush to take a more popular, acceptable and politically correct stance, attempting to respond to and accommodate social trends. They have begun to offer "commitment ceremonies" as an alternative to weddings.

Those who read and believe the Bible know it is God's will that relationships between single men and women progress to marriage without living together first. "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from unchastity; that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God; that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we solemnly forewarned you. For God has not called us for uncleanness, but in holiness" (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 [3] For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication: [4] That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; [5] Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: [6] That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. [7] For God has not called us to uncleanness, but to holiness.
American King James Version×
, Revised Standard Version).

Are most religions teaching God's point of view on this crucial issue and leading people in ways that will benefit them the most?

"... Few religions prohibit cohabitation or even actively attempt to discourage it, so the religious barrier may be quite weak ... As the practice of cohabitation in America becomes increasingly common, popular distinctions between cohabitation and marriage are fading. In short, the legal, social and religious barriers to cohabitation are weak and likely to get weaker. Unless there is an unexpected turnaround, America and the other Anglo countries, plus the rest of northern Europe, do appear to be headed in the direction of Scandinavia" (Popenoe and Whitehead).

Scandinavia, principally Sweden and Denmark, lead the world in cohabiting couples—along with the lowest marriage rate and one of the highest divorce rates.

What does the future hold?

Popenoe and Whitehead wrote: "We recognize the larger social and cultural trends that make cohabiting relationships attractive to many young adults today. Unmarried cohabitation is not likely to go away."

That translates into more abuse of women and children, more depression, more unhappiness and more divorce. To address issues such as health care, financial contracts and child custody, new legislation will be written to accommodate these marriage-without-getting-married relationships.

Family law in many states already takes it into consideration but will likely have to accommodate new legislation to deal with the complexities brought on by the modern kind of cohabitation. Current cohabitation practices don't necessarily fall within the framework of existing law, which is geared toward marriage, not the avoidance of it. Presently 11 states and the District of Columbia recognize common-law marriages. The family-law statutes of six states and the District of Columbia include cohabitation in their definition of a common-law marriage. But that is, of course, looking at cohabitation as proof of intent to be married, not as proof that the couple doesn't intend to marry.

Cohabiting is often done supposedly to avoid the very problems it brings.

"Unlike divorce or unwed childbearing, the trend toward cohabitation has inspired virtually no public comment or criticism," says the Popenoe-Whitehead report. That in itself is a sad commentary on our civilization.

But The Good News isn't afraid to comment: Living together unmarried isn't a way to right the wrongs of the divorce revolution, but another wrong in itself. It is sin—sin that has been dressed up in acceptable-sounding words, perhaps, but sin. When people sin, they pay a price, their children pay a price, and their entire nation pays a price—a terrible price.

Christ's words resound with wisdom and warning: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery [porneia, meaning immorality, including fornication and unmarried cohabitation].' But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart'" (Matthew 5:27-28 Matthew 5:27-28 [27] You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not commit adultery: [28] But I say to you, That whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.
American King James Version×
). Knowing the damage that sexual sins inflict on mankind, Jesus commands to avoid it at all costs.

Whether a man and woman should live together unmarried must not be decided by economics, convenience, societal trends or personal preferences—not by human opinion in any form. Marriage is a divine institution, ordained of God. He alone makes the rules. He knows what works and what doesn't. Research increasingly confirms that rejecting His way brings only sorrow and heartache, as many are learning the hard way..

God meant marriage for learning to love with loyalty and tenderness. It involves commitment, self-sacrifice and a willingness to share. At its deepest level, marriage pictures the loving relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32 Ephesians 5:22-32 [22] Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord. [23] For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. [24] Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. [25] Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; [26] That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, [27] That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. [28] So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. [29] For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the church: [30] For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. [31] For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. [32] This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
American King James Version×
). It pictures faithfulness, commitment and permanence. Living together detracts from this biblical legacy. God is the author of the marriage institution. GN

The Popenoe-Whitehead report can be read in its entirety at http://www.smartmarriages.com/cohabit.html.