General consensus seems to be that cohabitation* is the new normal in America—and at face value cohabitation and marriage look pretty similar. Doesn’t it make sense to check for compatibility, save some money while you’re in a serious relationship and/or learn from the mistakes of your divorced parents?
Barna shows that most of us think so.
So why does Christianity persist in recommending a different approach to testing and maintaining long-term relationships?
Let’s be honest here: for Christians, the major issue with cohabitation is sex; or the ‘sex before marriage’ part. Why? The Bible sees the misuse of sex as a major problem. Sex outside of the context of marriage, or even abusive/unhealthy sex in marriage, is seen to cause problems in your relationship with God, each other and within the community (Matt. 5:27-30; Matt. 15:19; Matt. 19:9).
The Bible depicts something happening in sex between individuals that is beyond just the physical aspect of sex. In the old English versions of the Bible, when a couple has sex at the time of their marriage, it was said that they ‘knew each other’. Sex isn’t just about having babies; it adds multiple dimensions to the relationship. It isn’t just practical and physical; it’s emotionally melding and spiritually significant (1 Corinthians 6:15-16). Therefore, if sex is misused or treated one-dimensionally, there will be emotional and spiritual scarring.
When sex is included in cohabitation, unnecessary emotional scarring happens in one of several ways:
- One person in the relationship experiences a multi-dimensional connection to sex and the other does not. If the relationship does not survive, the emotional scarring of that one person is much deeper than if the relationship did not include pre-marital sex;
- Both individuals fully commit to each other but the relationship doesn’t last because of the ease of getting out of non-binding relationships. The Bible says that they have become ‘one flesh’, so whether they like it or not, they will carry the emotional impact of the relationship into any future relationship they have. The impact can evidence itself in a variety of ways (affairs, lack of commitment, emotional distance, etc.);
- Both individuals don’t experience any emotional connection to the sex in their relationship. In this scenario sex is nihilistic and is easily brushed off as casual, but the Bible emphasizes that all sex has an impact on who we are emotionally (Matt. 15:19-20; James 1:14-15)—whether we realize this or not at the time. The negative impact of a hedonistic approach to sex is eventually seen in how that individual values personal relationships and their community.
Yes, sexual attraction is a very important part of any successful long-term relationship. But for Christians, the benefit of making a life-long commitment in marriage before having sex, is that when sex enters a relationship, each person becomes both physically and emotionally vulnerable to the other and the security of marriage provides some safety for them both.
It’s also worth noting that, according to scientists, the euphoria associated with initial physical attraction lasts about 12-24 months. Ultimately, the benefit of sex in marriage is experienced over decades, not in a test-drive. So maybe focusing on communication, joint interests, trust, etc. can help determine whether a relationship will last—not sex.
Many folks who cohabit have come from the dark cloud of divorce and broken homes and want to avoid the pitfall of marriage altogether. This is completely understandable. Many of us have either experienced or observed the toxicity that can occur in a broken marriage relationship. There’s nothing good about it. We also live in a utilitarian culture; a culture of beta testing, the next new thing, disposable goods, fast paced tech, and on-demand. Many believe that this has had an indirect influence on how younger generations approach relationships.
Both these mindsets lead to an environment of perpetual testing, with the ability to easily jump ship if the going gets tough. Serious relationships become more disposable in nature. The danger of treating relationships more like commodities that exist to make us happy, is that people are not inanimate objects—they will get seriously hurt and the impact of that hurt is seen on individuals and how they interact with their community.
Relationships that operate with an easy get-out clause lack the unconditional commitment needed for a relationship to fully blossom (Marriage; Ephesians 5:21-32). Some also argue that if you’ve operated with this mindset in a relationship for so long, if you do eventually marry, nothing changes that mindset.
There’s nothing wrong with the desire to have compatibility—in fact, it should be encouraged. But the reality is that test driving and beta-testing a long-term relationship by living together does not lead to any more certainty as to whether the decision will be the correct one or not. If sex is included, it creates unnecessary hurt when the test-drive does not involve a ‘final purchase’.
For Christians, taking some well measured steps to check for compatibility and then making a commitment to stay together lifelong BEFORE sex enters a relationship seems a time-tested common sense approach to long-term relationships—for the individual and the community.
The whole point of marriage from a Christian perspective is not that it makes me happier, but that two people become stronger together, that those two people have a stronger impact on their community, and that an aspect of God’s nature is glimpsed in the marriage relationship.
*For the purposes of this article, we are defining cohabitation as “unmarried heterosexual couples living together in a sexual relationship as a precursor or alternative to marriage.”