It used to be called living in sin. At one time every U.S. state had laws against it. Some believe that rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases have applied a brake to the sexual revolution, but cohabitation—unmarried couples living together—is one trend that has not slowed.
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the number of unmarried opposite-sex couples sharing a household more than doubled between 2000 and 2010—jumping from 3.8 million to 7.5 million. And this marks a sevenfold increase from 1970, during the heart of the sexual revolution, when the number was less than a million.
The actual number may be higher since such couples may describe themselves as roommates, housemates or "just friends" living together.
This growing figure now accounts for 12 percent of U.S. households. In some large cities a third or more of couples living together are not married.
Surprising as these figures are, they may vastly underestimate the scope of the problem. Data from the National Center for Marriage and Family Research shows that almost 60 percent of women ages 19-44 have at one point lived with an unmarried partner of the opposite sex.
Although living together without the benefit of matrimony carries virtually no social stigma, some still worry about it. Says psychologist and divorce researcher Judith Wallerstein: "What can we do when . . . the most common living arrangement nowadays is a household of unmarried people with no children? These numbers are terrifying. But like all massive social change, what's happening is affecting us in ways that we have yet to understand" (The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, 2000, pp. 295-296).
Living together while unmarried is trendy in other Western nations too. In Britain, an estimated 80 percent of couples live together before getting married. Australia is just behind at 77 percent.
The reason given by many couples who cohabit is that they believe they will increase the chances of success when they eventually marry. However, research has shown that this idea is a fallacy. And it flies against God's intention that men and women be sexually joined together only in marriage.
A cause of family instability
Here's what the research reveals: "Although most theories of marital choice predict that cohabitation would increase the stability of later marriages for those couples who marry, evidence to date suggests the opposite; couples who cohabit before marriage seem to end their marriages at significantly higher rates than couples who never lived together before the wedding" (Demography, August 1995, p. 438, emphasis added).
Some studies put the divorce rate at 50 percent higher for couples who cohabit; others put it as high as 80 percent.
One factor that seems to be different among American cohabitants and Europeans is that a larger proportion of the latter eventually marry. In America roughly 40 percent of cohabiting couples break up before marriage. Many couples apparently move in together intending to marry later. "One study revealed that 70 percent of women moved in with a man with marriage on their minds" (Ben Young and Dr. Samuel Adams, The 10 Commandments of Dating, 1999, p. 110).
We shouldn't be surprised, however, that American men are less likely to have marriage on their minds when they set up housekeeping than do women. Many men simply choose this option for the availability of easy sex. In a national sex survey of married couples and unmarrieds living together, "men who were cohabiting scored lower on commitment than anyone else in the survey" (Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage, 2000, p. 85).
Many people who choose to live together before marriage show that they are reluctant to commit to a relationship and want to keep their options open. Apparently they value their autonomy and individuality. However, these temporary living arrangements subject any children involved to an unstable home life. "Over a quarter of unmarried mothers are cohabiting at the time of their children's birth, and many other cohabiting families have children from other unions" (p. 38).
Some believe—erroneously—that children do well as long as they live in a home in which there is a male and female, whether married or not. But the evidence doesn't support this. "Children living with cohabiting partners and in stepfamilies generally do less well than those living with both married biological parents" (The American Prospect, April 8, 2002).
Some people are serial cohabitants, living with several partners in succession. Their living patterns magnify the risk inherent with the cohabitation lifestyle. The children involved must adjust to a progression of adult partners whom their parents select. The risk of spreading deadly sexually transmitted diseases is also higher among this group.
Trial runs not what they're cracked up to be
In spite of these troubling facts and figures, many American singles still seem to believe that a marital "test drive" is the preferred choice before committing to marriage. An NBC poll found that "66 percent of young people ages 18 to 32 believe that you should first live together before you get married" (Young and Adams, pp. 104-105).
Young people who entertain romantic notions about cohabiting should think twice. Compared to married couples, there is "more cheating by both partners [as well as] more domestic violence and a higher incidence of depression" among those who simply live together (U.S. News & World Report, March 13, 2000).
How bad is the sexual unfaithfulness among those in cohabiting relationships? "The National Sex Survey found that cohabiting men were about four times as likely as husbands to report infidelity in the past year. Women were more faithful in general, but still cohabiting women were eight times more likely than wives to cheat on their partners" (Waite and Gallagher, pp. 92-93, emphasis added).
A distinct advantage to marriage over cohabitation is the higher degree of emotional commitment in marriage. Popular media often present the view that sex outside of marriage is much more exciting and thrilling than married sex. But the opposite is true. Research shows that, because married couples are generally more committed to each, they enjoy a higher level of sexual satisfaction.
"Emotional commitment improves one's sex life . . . For example, sex with someone you love literally doubles your sexual pleasure: You get satisfaction not only from your own sexual response but from your partner's as well. Emotional commitment to a partner makes satisfying him or her important in and of itself.
"Demanding a loving relationship before having sex, using sex to express love, and striving to meet the sexual needs of one's partner all increase satisfaction with sex. Love and a concern for one's partner shifts the focus away from the self in a sexual relationship and toward the other person. This selfless approach to sex, paradoxically, is far more likely to bring sexual satisfaction to both men and women" (p. 89).
Part of the boom in cohabitation rates is fueled by a growing bias against marriage. Various authorities speak of marriage as an institution that robs individuals of freedom, describing it as an oppressive state, especially to women. A college textbook even claimed that "marriage has an adverse effect on women's mental health" (p. 1).
As a result, in some quarters simply using the word marriage is passé. "A strange embarrassment or reluctance to use the word marriage is visible all over the Western world. The Marriage Guidance Council of Australia recently changed its name to Relationships Australia; Britain's Marriage Guidance Council metamorphosed into Relate" (p. 8).
That which is presented as a right—the freedom to have sex outside of marriage whenever we want, however we want, with whomever or whatever we want—is a perversion of our Creator's intention for humanity and a plunge into moral degradation. Regrettably, the concept of sex as something special to be saved for marriage has largely become outdated for many singles.
"Carelessly, thoughtlessly, casually, sex—in the short space of a single generation—went from being the culminating act of committed love to being a precondition, a tryout, for future emotional involvement" (Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman, 2000, p. 30).
Sex outside of marriage is a sin against God. "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). God said a man should be joined to his wife, not simply another person or a live-in lover (Exodus 20:14). But human beings refuse to admit that the very Creator of male and female sexuality knows what's best for us. It is He who created the institution of marriage to develop a morally and socially sound relationship.
Cohabitation represents a threat to societal stability. History demonstrates that marriage and family are the building blocks of strong societies. Those who ignore the lesson of history place their happiness—and their nation's future—in peril.