‘Living together,’ unmarried? Put a ring on it!

AP In this image taken from video, Britain’s Prince William, left, places the ring on the finger of his bride, … Continued

AP

In this image taken from video, Britain’s Prince William, left, places the ring on the finger of his bride, Kate Middleton, as they stand at the altar at Westminster Abbey for the Royal Wedding in London on Friday, April, 29, 2011. Even Prince William put a ring on it after years of living with Middleton.

In the past few months, there has been a lot of buzz about the steep rise in cohabitation across America, especially among my generation of twenty-somethings. The dialogue was started by “The State of Our Unions,” the annual report on marriage in the U.S., which found that what was still referred to as “living in sin” back in 1960 has grown fifteen-fold in the years since.

But the issue really hit home for me personally when two couples I’m friends with moved in together. Both have religious backgrounds, which has historically been a major deterrent to cohabitation. But both also come from divorced homes –and that’s the source of much of the tension for many men and women my age between personal faith and the need, as Beyonce sings, to “put a ring on it” before living together.

Sociologists often speak of how generations are shaped by what they are denied. The millennial generation has seen and felt the heartbreak surrounding divorce. Many of us were denied a stable home environment, so we struggle with commitment — not out of rebellion, but simply because we did not see “till death do us part” modeled by our parents. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it, though; being deprived of seeing many examples of long-lasting, unconditional love has actually caused us to desire it deeply.

The Pew Research Center has found that millennials have “the strongest desire to marry” of any generation today. An MTV poll a few years back found that 92 percent of young people 13 to 24 “definitely” or “probably” want to get married.

While that desire is strong, it is often matched (and beaten) by a paralyzing fear about making the jump to any commitment, especially a marriage. The meet-me-halfway point is cohabitation.

Unfortunately, cohabitation is not an answer to our longings; and it’s not a healthy preseason to marriage. Its message is, “I’d really like to take part of you. And maybe some time in the future I’ll consider taking all of you.” Ironically, that’s the very thing we’re afraid of — a commitment-free, self-focused relationship.

As a single millennial working for a Christian organization that helps couples build strong marriages and weather the rough times that come, I understand that marriage is not easy. I also understand that often times what is best for us is not the easiest path. One certainly doesn’t need to have any religious faith to understand this. Setting religious convictions aside, social science is not erring on the positive side for cohabitation. Rather, it is displaying that cohabitation is a pale counterfeit to what is best for us relationally.

My friend and coworker Glenn Stanton reveals in his new book, The Ring Makes All the Difference,that marriage, not cohabitation, is the best option for couples – but especially for women. Research tells us (see page 117) that a woman who cohabitates before marriage will increase her likelihood of getting a husband who:

· displays violent behavior toward her;

· is less committed to her;

· is less committed than she is to the marriage;

· is less likely to be emotionally and practically supportive; and

· is more generally relationally negative.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but as Glenn and many other sociologists conclude, this pre-marriage experiment is not the best way sustain a healthy relationship or to build a lifelong, lasting union “in sickness and in health.”

Cohabitation may be the fastest-growing family type in the U.S., but it is a mask to a true, authentic and committed relationship — marriage. Living together before saying “I do” will not help lower the divorce rate, and it will certainly not ensure an unbroken heart.

In many cases, in fact, it will lead to exactly the opposite.


Esther Fleece is assistant to the president for millennial relations at Focus on the Family.

About

Esther Fleece Esther Fleece has an impressive track record of connecting influential individuals and organizations to their mutual benefit. Christianity Today noted Fleece's skills and success as a "relationship broker" in an article highlighting the Top 50 Women Shaping the Church and Culture, and she was honored by CNN as one of the "Five Women to Watch" in 2012. An in-demand millennial expert and international speaker, Fleece has been identified as one of the "New Faces of Evangelicalism" by USA Today.
  • WmarkW

    The single leading cause of divorce is people who shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. The divorce rate for first marriages between partners over 25 is a fraction what it is for younger or previously marrieds.

    The best way to prevent divorces is not to marry too early. In biblical times, girls married at puberty so pre-marital sex was a non-issue. If you try to limit sex to marriage today, you get at 12-year period between puberty and marriage, which leads to Bristol Palins.

    Marriage and reproduction should not be hurried. Our livespans are too long today for that.

  • exgaysurvivordan

    And yet Focus works so hard to deny that ability to marry to gay and lesbian families.

  • CHoff

    Regardless of my thoughts on Focus’s stand on certain issues, I do think there is some good information here. Research has shown many times that in general, cohabitation is not a better substitute for marriage in terms of the quality of relationship.

    Making a big commitment to someone else and putting them before yourself makes you a much better, less selfish person (even though it is usually the far more difficult option). I don’t think that is achievable if you just live together with an easy out if things get difficult.

  • lepidopteryx

    I would not even consider marrying a man until I had lived with him for at least a year first. And I advised my daughter to do the same. You don’t buy a car without test driving it, so why would you make a lifelong commitment to someone without knowing what they were like to live with on a daily basis?

  • hotdoc007

    Interestingly enough, despite people arguing that it’s better to try it out before the marriage commitment, the statistics say vast majority of couples who cohabit will break up. Even those who end up getting married, the divorce rate is higher than those who did not cohabit before marriage.

  • hotdoc007

    I often hear people arguing, “you don’t buy a car before test driving it. Why shouldn’t you do the same with marriage?” It sounds reasonable on surface, but statistics say the opposite. If someone is treating marriage commitment as lightly as buying a car (which you try several before settling for one; which you get rid of when it gets old), chances are they are not treating marriage serious enough. Would you want a partner who test drove several others around the block and who will trade you in when a newer model comes in?

  • cricket44

    I can’t think of an organization LESS qualified to give this type of advice than FOF.

  • haveaheart

    While I understand the earnest desire of inexperienced twenty-somethings to offer up their collected wisdom for the benefit of society — that is, make grand pronouncements about how people should and should not live — I have found that these not-quite-adults usually lack the perspective of someone who has . . . well . . . grown up and actually lived a little.

    Given the sheer numbers of twenty-somethings who have yet to vacate the parental nest — or have returned to it after failing to make it on their own — it takes quite a nerve to lecture their elders (and, often, betters) on why the choices we’ve made have been misguided, detrimental, or just morally wrong.

    Give it a rest, sweetheart. After you’ve broken out of the Focus on the Family cocoon and lived an “authentic and committed” life, you might just have some insights we’d be interested in reading. And, very likely, you won’t be quite so certain about everything. (Think: humility.)

  • dday76

    ps. Beyonce’s music to encourage Biblical relationships? I suppose it’s better than applying cohabitation failures to discourage cohabitation.
    Stantion is saying that a man who wants to cohabitate will be a bad husband, so you should just marry them?
    The idea that someone should commit FOR LIFE to someone one has never even lived with (or had sex with depending on the extreme form of religious bondage Focus has in mind) is absolutely ludicrous. A more succinct restatement of this argument would be – “marry a stranger.”
    Esther and friends should just be honest – Women need a husband to submit to and should find one as soon as possible. That’s an article of faith, regardless what people find in actual real-life situations. Don’t take my word for it. Just read the Focus on the Family site (hint: try searching “tips for practicing submission”).

    ps. I wasn’t aware On Faith was an advertising venue. A Focus employee writing an article about a Focus book published by a Focus employee to promote Focus ideology should be charged as ad space.

  • haveaheart

    ScottinVA,

    I’m starting to think you’re stalking me around the “On Faith” blog. Do you go looking, each day, specifically for my posts so that you can practice being presumptuous, self-righteous, and arrogant? (Or, as a friend of mine would say, a “bombastic windbag”?) Aren’t you getting bored yet?

    To satisfy your rabid curiosity, I’m happily married and have no need or desire to tell others how it’s done because, of course, there’s no “it” involved. Different couples have different experiences, encounter different obstacles, seek help in different ways.

    Next point: I don’t have any “great wealth of wisdom” and did not claim any such thing in my post. I merely questioned how someone who is barely out of childhood could claim such wisdom for herself. I wonder how this youngster could have everything figured out when it takes most regular folks 70 or 80 years to get there.

    Finally: On that humility thing, “hubris” isn’t something you “spew.” Your struggle to display an impressive vocabulary is endearing but wasted. Better to write clearly, concisely, and (in service of these) sparely.

  • kathleenmmch

    Ah, the usual smattering of cherry-picked statistics, right-wing talking points, and hollow moralizing from the Christian fundamentalists at Focus on the Family. I hardly think a group of bigots that works so hard to deny gay and lesbian Americans the equal right to marry qualifies as any authority on marriage.
    What’s next, WaPo? Why not just offer a column to Westboro Baptist Church too?

  • elmtree48

    I do not condone divorce or living together before marriage, especially for Christians. Nevertheless, sadly, I am divorced and I do live with someone. It’s a shame for me, even to try to justify my reasons because I know God is not happy with me. However, after 25 years of marriage and no positive relationship with my spouse, I just could not live like that anymore. I will not remarry because my ex-spouse is still my only husband no matter what society says. However, I am a person who cannot live alone. I need companionship. I found companionship in someone who some people would call my “soul mate.” We are not married. I did not come into this relationship until after my children were grown and on their own.
    I do not think it is right for anyone to “test” a possible marriage relationship. Instead, there needs to be a lot of prayer, a heart devoted to God and a mind that knows HE is a jealous God; therefor, TRUST HIS judgment for a spouse. Before I got married, I did not have the right Godly training or the right Godly counseling. Also, I did not have the right relationship with my own parents to trust THEIR judgment. I cannot change the path my life has taken; I am thankful I did not live with anyone before marriage, and God knows I tried my best to make my marriage work. There was a lot of living I had to learn, and going from home to marriage is not necessarily the right way to do it.
    If there is any advice I can give to anyone, it is this: Unless you are absolutely sure the person you want to marry is God’s choice for you, do not get married. Do not live unmarried. Do not “test” the waters, so to speak. Make sure you bathe yourself and your possible intended in an abundance of prayer. Try living life as a single person and identify your own quirks, likes, and dislikes. For those going to college, this is not exactly living life without your family. You might consider waiting until you’ve finished college to be sure of yourself. If not, get lots

  • elmtree48

    I do not condone divorce or living together before marriage, especially for Christians. Nevertheless, sadly, I am divorced and I do live with someone. It’s a shame for me, even to try to justify my reasons because I know God is not happy with me. However, after 25 years of marriage and no positive relationship with my spouse, I just could not live like that anymore. I will not remarry because my ex-spouse is still my only husband no matter what society says. However, I am a person who cannot live alone. I need companionship. I found companionship in someone who some people would call my “soul mate.” We are not married. I did not come into this relationship until after my children were grown and on their own.
    I do not think it is right for anyone to “test” a possible marriage relationship. Instead, there needs to be a lot of prayer, a heart devoted to God and a mind that knows HE is a jealous God; therefor, TRUST HIS judgment for a spouse. Before I got married, I did not have the right Godly training or the right Godly counseling. Also, I did not have the right relationship with my own parents to trust THEIR judgment. I cannot change the path my life has taken; I am thankful I did not live with anyone before marriage, and God knows I tried my best to make my marriage work. There was a lot of living I had to learn, and going from home to marriage is not necessarily the right way to do it.
    If there is any advice I can give to anyone, it is this: Unless you are absolutely sure the person you want to marry is God’s choice for you, do not get married. Do not live unmarried. Do not “test” the waters, so to speak. Make sure you bathe yourself and your possible intended in an abundance of prayer. Try living life as a single person and identify your own quirks, likes, and dislikes. For those going to college, this is not exactly living life without your family. You might consider waiting until you’ve finished college to be sure of yourself. If not, get lots o

  • ThinkInTruth

    You are so right, Esther. As a Millennial, I recognize that we need to teach our children the importance of – and how to make – a good choice! Commitment is not taught in schools today. I know I didn’t learn it. Neither are responsibility, good character or decision making. From college majors to marriage, we tell young people “Try it out and if it doesn’t work, just try something else.” But we don’t tell them that the cost is high, and they will have to pay the bill, emotionally or financially! Happily, I found a good wife, and we are changing this cycle with our children.

  • ThinkInTruth

    In support of your point, a car test drive is a sales gimmick! Every new car drives great to somebody who likes that style or kind of car! But you have no commitment to it… if you did, the test drive would mean nothing! And in the back of your mind you know this car is only for a season, and you will have to get another! Marriage is a commitment that starts out like a test drive, then gets rough, but with age and commitment to regular maintenance starts to run smoothly and make all of life better, eventually taking on a life of its own. You can trade it in for a newer model, but you start back at nothing with a great test drive and no equity!

  • DonWin2

    While I don’t agree 100% with Focus on the Family (I think there are times when the deviate from the word), the cause for anger toward FOTF is due to guilt., People do know what morality is and what is acceptable and what is not. Cohabitation studies show that, in most cases, the negatives outweigh any benefits. And FOTF cannot support gay marriage because of scripture. Gays know what the bible states. I agree it is between them and God but if we love others, we should not only be beyond reproach but care about others afterlife.

    And you cant blame FOTF for failed marriages, ever. They are trying to combat the problem which is typically when the husband, wife or both or selfish and put themselves or others above God. God hates divorce but if people are ignoring His commands, then we see more divorce and ridiculous things being promoted, like gay marriage.

  • kpharri

    I agree that a firm commitment may increase the chances of a long-term, stable relationship, if that is indeed what the participants want.

    However, I do not agree that a religious ceremony is necessarily the only way to go. I realize you’re not arguing specifically for religious marriage in your post, but I think it deserves clarification nonetheless.

    I was married in the conventional way, in a church, but I am no longer a believer. This has not, however, weakened the sense of commitment I feel to my wife. This is because I made my promise of commitment to her, not to God, so this commitment still stands.

    What I’m getting at is that two people are capable of making a commitment to their relationship without taking the walk down the aisle and getting blessed by a pastor. They can also make a commitment to their relationship without obtaining a legal document from the state.

    It may, however be important for a couple to make at least some sort of public, symbolic gesture of their commitment, for the simple reason that this makes it harder to back out of the commitment the moment things get tough. But this doesn’t have to be a wedding ceremony – it can be a celebration of almost any kind.

  • kpharri

    “Our psyches do not react well to the guilt of knowingly violating the basic morality within.”

    Since when is there a “basic morality within” that makes couples guilty about not marrying? Marriage, you must remember, is a relatively new institution in the long (100,000+) history of the human race. To suggest that we have some innate instinct to get married is just plain silly.

    We may have an instinct to commit to one partner for a certain time period (for life, in some cases), but there cannot be an instinct for marriage, per se.

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