Kendra and David sat on the couch in their pastor’s study, sharing their story of meeting and falling in love. Both were pretty sure that they wanted to be married in the future, but student debt, rising housing costs, and a history of divorce on both sides of their family had made them both reluctant to tie the knot. They’d been dating for about 8 months and were discussing marriage with their pastor, trying to decide when, and if, marriage was really for them. Like many couples in similar situations, David and Kendra had moved in together early in their relationship. “After all,” David explained to their pastor, “one way we’ll know for certain that marriage will work for us is if we try it out.” Is David right?
According to a 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, more adults aged 18-44 have cohabitated than have married. Living together before marriage is seen (even by a growing number of Christians) as an acceptable alternative to marriage, or as a way to test for a successful marriage. However, research has shown that, rather than improve a marriage’s chance for success, cohabitation is actually linked to higher divorce rates in marriage. In fact, a 2023 report from the University of Denver showed that couples who lived together prior to marriage were 48% more likely to divorce than couples who did not. And, when measuring overall marital satisfaction, happiness, and trust (among other factors), couples who married reported higher satisfaction than those who only lived together. The data is clear: living together before marriage is associated with less happiness and a higher instance of marital dissolution.
So, why is this – and why is it better for you not to live together before marriage?
God’s purpose in marriage is about more than convenience, or creating financial stability, or sexual satisfaction. The biblical view of marriage is to create a covenant that mirrors God’s relationship with his people. The Apostle Paul explains to us that since Christ cares for the members of his church, as if we are members of his body, “'For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Paul wants us to see that our marriages are patterned on Christ’s marriage to his people, the church. God’s relationship with us is a covenant, a promise that he makes to us and confirms at the cross. A covenant is intended to be a permanent, inviolable, unbreakable relationship, and our marriage is meant to illustrate this. Granted, in our fallen world, marriages still break down due to our sinfulness, but ideally, we are to show the world what God’s covenant-making, covenant-keeping love looks like.
When a couple lives together absent this committed covenant, their relationship is formed with a built-in exit strategy. There's a continual expectation that I can just bail out if I'm unhappy. As long as the couple enjoys one another, and as long as they are both reasonably happy, the relationship can continue; but when serious conflict arises, or when life becomes busy, stressful, or overwhelming, and the relationship becomes less enjoyable, ending the relationship is the first option on the list. The Pew Research study reported that levels of trust are lower among cohabitating couples, and the data suggests that this is owing to the absence of a formal commitment in the relationship. Marriage, on the other hand, forms a commitment that is much harder to break, meaning that when trouble or conflict comes along, the couple is forced to do the hard work of self-examination, repentance, and growth that is essential for a happy marriage.
In Genesis 2:24, God pronounces a blessing on the first married couple, saying to them that a “Man will leave his father and mother, and will cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” Marriage creates a unique being, in which two distinct individuals maintain their own identities even as they form a new entity – a “we” that is unified to the exclusion of all others. Living as a “we” can be challenging. It requires each person to learn how to be themselves even as they are committed to fully serving the other, seeking the benefit of the “we” even before their own benefit. Couples that do not marry have not made that obligation to one another. The data seems to back this up. Cohabiting couples express a 16% lower rate of trust that their partner will “seek their best interest.” That means that couples who are married are statistically more likely to trust one another to seek the good of the “we” rather than just each other’s individual wants or desires.
One reason given for couples to live together before marriage is to explore sexual compatibility. This seems to make sense at first. If you are going to spend a lifetime together, it might seem reasonable to decide if you share similar sexual desires. Again, however, there is a flaw in this way of thinking. Sex is meant to be a way of sharing yourself fully and totally with a person to whom you have pledged your entire life. In this sense, sex is a way to seal the covenant that has been made. When a covenant is made and a couple has publicly committed themselves to one another with a vow, giving themselves to each other sexually is a way to reenact, over and over again, that commitment.
But sex outside of this commitment turns this on its head. It says, essentially, “I will not yet commit myself to you, though I want you to give yourself to me.” It may be that women are more attuned to this (though perhaps not always), as some evidence suggests that men are more likely to avoid commitment than women. This may mean that a woman desires the stability of marriage, but her man won’t commit, leaving her to settle for a relationship that is less permanent than she desires. In the meantime, the couple continues to enjoy sexual intimacy, and because women tend to recognize and appreciate the need for relational security as the context for sex, they are left settling for less than they may want. The biblical pattern for sex is meant to create the stability and permanence in which sexual intimacy and vulnerability can thrive.
What if, like David and Kendra, you are living together as a trial for marriage? It’s never too late to acknowledge mistakes, and to chart a new course forward in your relationship. If you aren’t ready to be married, move apart and focus on dating and building your relationship in this way. If you know that you are ready to make a lifelong commitment, get married – even if by your pastor in his or her study, and save a reception for later. Plan a simpler wedding celebration that is within your budget, and make that public and permanent commitment to one another. In doing so, you will increase your trust with one another, and deepen your happiness as husband and wife.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster
Rev. Deb Koster