Sam Roberts, writing for the NY Times, breaks down a study of men and women ages 15 to 44 performed by the National Center for Health Statistics using 2002 data from the National Survey of Family Growth. The study found that cohabitation (living together with a sexual partner of the opposite gender) is now an experience of over 60% of women in their thirties. This percentage doubled from 1987 to 2002 (so it might be even higher now). Roberts reports that “half of couples who cohabit marry within three years, the study found. If both partners are college graduates, the chances improve that they will marry and that their marriage will last at least 10 years.”
Now the logic of cohabitation prior to marriage seems to be this: You cannot “know” if the marriage will “work” unless you first establish compatibility via experience. Of course, many who cohabit later split-up. But for those who marry, are their marriages more likely to stick? No. The study found that “the likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first.” Why? Dr. Albert Mohler explains:
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. 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.
I think that last sentence nails it: “having lived together with the open possibility of parting, that possibility always remains, and never leaves.” Their view of marriage was heavily tilted toward personal fulfillment to begin with. When something else seems more alluring, it is more difficult to resist. A robust view of marriage is needed. Dr. Mohler is right: Permanence must come before experience. That alone brings the security and stability to sustain a marriage through thick and thin. And permanence alone displays the Christ-church dynamic which marriage was intended to display.