Is Cohabitation Before Marriage a Good Idea?
Many assume that cohabitation before marriage is a good way to ensure the success of a relationship. But recent research finds that it is riskier than most think.
What do these all have in common?
- The earth is flat.
- The earth is the center of the universe.
- Smoking tobacco is not harmful to one’s health.
At one time all of these were the conventional wisdom of the day—believed by most people—but were later proven to be false.
A problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s so commonly accepted that it can be blindly accepted. For instance, in our society today conventional wisdom holds that cohabitation before marriage is beneficial to romantic relationships and is better than waiting until after marriage to live together and have sex. In other words, “Try before you buy.”
But recent research challenges that conventional wisdom and shows that cohabitation actually increases your chances of divorce.
A Wall Street Journal essay recently reported on the findings of an Institute for Family Studies research brief:
“In analyzing reports of marriage and divorce from more than 50,000 women in the U.S. government’s National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), we found that there is a group of women for whom marriage before 30 is not risky: women who married directly, without ever cohabiting prior to marriage. In fact, women who married between 22 and 30, without first living together, had some of the lowest rates of divorce in the NSFG.
“By contrast, for the approximately 70% of women in our sample who cohabited with one or more partners prior to marriage, the conventional wisdom held. For them, waiting until around 30 was linked to a lower risk of divorce . . .
“The idea that cohabitation is risky is surprising, given that a majority of young adults believe that living together is a good way to pretest the quality of your partner and your partnership, thereby increasing the quality and stability of your marriage. But a growing body of research indicates that Americans who live together before marriage are less likely to be happily married and more likely to land in divorce court” (“Too Risky to Wed in Your 20s? Not if You Avoid Cohabiting First,” Feb. 5, 2022).
Their analysis also showed that those raised in a religious background that discourages cohabitation tended to marry earlier, and this group had a lower risk of divorce.
Can the Bible shed light on the matter of marriage and cohabitation?
Marriage is a divine institution
The purpose of marriage has largely been lost in our society today.
In fact, many have forsaken marriage altogether because they believe it is pointless. Relationships, they believe, exist solely for the purpose of meeting certain needs—physical, emotional, sexual or financial. Since many people are finding ways to meet those needs without marriage, it’s becoming more common to do without marriage altogether.
But the Bible shows that marriage is about more than just fulfilling needs.
Marriage is actually a divine institution, which means it was ordained by God Himself. God intended for two people to become “one flesh” through marriage (Genesis 2:24). “One flesh” speaks to the sexual union as well as the mental and emotional union a loving husband and wife should have. The marriage union was given a direct blessing from God Himself (Genesis 1:28).
These unions work best when God is involved, guiding and blessing the husband and wife.
Jesus reaffirmed the sanctity and importance of marriage when He walked the earth (Matthew 19:4-5).
Jesus showed that from the creation of Adam and Eve to the first century, God’s intent for marriage had not changed, and this is still true to this day. Marriage is a God-ordained union between a man and woman for a godly purpose. When men and women marry, they enter a covenant before God.
God reveals Himself to us as our Father (Matthew 6:9; 23:9), and He reveals Jesus to be His Son and our elder Brother (John 3:16; Hebrews 2:11; Romans 8:29). Jesus Christ will marry the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32; Revelation 19:7-9). The human family is a model of how God’s family works (Ephesians 3:15; 5:22-28). That is why we call marriage a divine institution.
When people cohabit before marriage, they cause harm to themselves because they directly contradict God’s purpose and intent for romantic love. The apostle Paul instructed Christians to “flee sexual immorality” and warned that those who practice sex outside of marriage are hurting themselves (1 Corinthians 6:18).
Studies show that men and women who experience many sexual realationships outside of marriage find it more difficult to have a committed and lasting marriage. Sin, breaking God’s law, is a major reason for divorce.
Our societies are not free to redefine or disregard God’s laws governing marriage. When we break His laws, we suffer the consequences. Sadly, because of sin, many people in our world today cannot maintain marriage relationships.
Marriage is the bedrock of strong communities
Marriage should be a training ground where we can learn to be less selfish, more giving, and seek the welfare of another human being.An important function of a godly marriage is the character-building component. A good marriage helps people build good character that will impact their other relationships in life—and, of course, their relationship with God. Marriage should be a training ground where we can learn to be less selfish, more giving, and seek the welfare of another human being.
Marriage is not just about fulfilling personal needs. A godly marriage is also about caring for the needs of one’s spouse and family.
This is the kind of environment God intended for children to be raised in. God commanded Adam and Eve to bring children into the marriage institution when He told them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). When parents fear God and treat one another with godly love and care, they create an environment for their children to also learn to fear God—and be the “godly offspring” that God desires (Malachi 2:15).
Negative impact of cohabitation on children
In rebellion to God’s laws, our societies have largely chosen the way of fornication.
According to the National Marriage Project report “Why Marriage Matters,” in the United States, four in 10 children are born into or spend time in a cohabitation relationship. The report identifies the rise of cohabiting households with children as “the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives.”
When children are born or raised outside the family structure that God designed, their lives become more complicated and difficult. Some of the negative effects of cohabitation on children include:
- Children of cohabiting couples are less likely to thrive. They do significantly worse than their counterparts in married families, and their performance is comparable to children in single-parent families.
- Children of cohabiting couples are more likely to be sexually and emotionally abused than children in both intact, married families and single-parent families.
- Transitions into and out of marriage, cohabitation and single parenthood are linked to higher reports of school failure, behavioral problems, drug use and loneliness in children.
- Children born into complex households—those with half-siblings, stepsiblings, stepparents, stepchildren—tend to have poor relationships with their parents, tend to develop behavioral and health problems, and are more likely to fail in school.
When children are born or raised outside the family structure that God designed, their lives become more complicated and difficult. (That doesn’t mean they are doomed to failure either.) Children raised in married relationships, especially those in which both husband and wife fear God and put Him first, are positioned to thrive.
So, is it a good idea to cohabit before marriage?
God’s Word, combined with modern research, shows that romantic relationships work best when cohabitation and sex are saved for after the wedding vows.
For more insight on this topic, read our article “Living Together Before Marriage.”