NASHVILLE -- Cohabitation is increasingly becoming the first co-residential union formed among young adults, a new study has found, but those who practice some facets of marriage without the foundation of commitment are harming their relationship.
"Over the past several decades, there have been large increases in the number of persons who have ever cohabited, that is, lived together with a sexual partner of the opposite sex," said the study, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics March 2.
The data, collected in 2002, showed that the proportion of women in their late 30s who had ever cohabited had doubled in 15 years, to 61 percent. Half of couples who cohabit marry within three years, the study said, but the likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had lived together first. Additionally, a couple who lives together before getting engaged and married is 10 percentage points more likely to break up before their 10-year anniversary than is a married couple who didn't cohabitate.
"Cohabitation is certainly a moral issue, but seeing it as a sociological and psychological issue as well reveals that cohabiting relationships tend -- with all other things being equal -- to be shorter-lived and more volatile than marriages because cohabitation is an ambiguous relationship," Glenn Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, said.
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"The man typically sees the relationship less seriously and more temporary than the woman and each partner's parents and extended family are not sure what the nature of the relationship is," Stanton added.
"Would a father-in-law be as likely to get his daughter's live-in boyfriend a job down at the factory or provide the money for their first home as he would his daughter's husband, his son-in-law? Of course not and this demonstrates one way how cohabiting relationships are practically very different."
Couples who were engaged at the time they began cohabiting, the study said, had roughly the same odds of survival in marriage as couples who did not cohabit before marrying. The key, observers said, is the nature of commitment at the time of cohabitation.
"When an engagement has taken place, the ring is bought, caterers are being interviewed, dresses being considered, the clarity of the relationship becomes clearer for all involved. Expectations are clearer," Stanton said.
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In a bulletin circulated March 4, Stanton noted the conflicting ways the study had been interpreted in media reports. A USA Today headline said, "Report: Cohabiting Has Little Effect on Marriage Success," while The New York Times said "Study Finds Cohabiting Doesn't Make Unions Last."
The Times, Stanton said, "did a better job in its reporting." While it's true that data indicated engaged cohabiting couples and married couples who did not cohabit were on mostly equal ground, the study did not find that cohabiting generally helped marriages and in fact found that it harmed those that lacked commitment.
The CDC study found that cohabiting women were more likely to have unemployed partners, college educated women were much less likely to be cohabiting than those with only a high school diploma, and young people who grew up with two parents at home were less likely to cohabit prior to marriage.
In comparing the longevity of marriage versus cohabiting, researchers found that about two-thirds of first marriages lasted 10 years or more, while only about one-fourth of men's and one-third of women's first cohabitations were estimated to last three years without either disrupting or transitioning to marriage.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., in commentary on the subject March 2, said many young adults tend to believe they are wise to try living together before committing to marriage, but actually they are undermining the institution they hope to protect.
"They do not know that what they are actually doing is undoing marriage. They miss the central logic of marriage as an institution of permanence," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "They miss the essential wisdom of marriage -- that the commitment must come before the intimacy, that the vows must come before the shared living, that the wisdom of marriage is its permanence before its experience.
"Cohabitation weakens marriage -- even a cohabiting couple's eventual marriage -- because a temporary and transitory commitment always weakens a permanent commitment. Having lived together with the open possibility of parting, that possibility always remains, and never leaves," Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com.
Christians should be reminded, he said, that marriage is a gift from the Creator and cannot be substituted adequately with cohabitation.
"In a world of transitory experiences, events, and commitments, marriage is intransigent. It simply is what it is -- a permanent commitment made by a man and a woman who commit themselves to live faithfully unto one another until the parting of death," Mohler said.
"That is what makes marriage what it is. The logic of marriage is easy to understand and difficult to subvert, which is one reason the institution has survived over so many millennia. Marriage lasts because of its fundamental status. It is literally what a healthy and functioning society cannot survive without."