Cohabitation in the 20th century
This is the title of a report by Dr John Hayward and Dr Guy Brandon of the Jubilee Centre. It provides an analysis of recent statistics derived from the British Household Panel Survey.
There are about 2.3 million cohabiting couples in England and Wales today, and that figure is expected to rise to 3.7 million by 2031. With age at first marriage now delayed to a mean of 32 for men and 30 for women, cohabitation is for some a prelude to marriage and for others an alternative.
The key findings are rather startling:-
- Cohabitation is generally short-lived. Couples live together for a mean of three years, with almost a half separating before two years. More than half of all cohabitees who separate do so in less than two years.
- Cohabitation is a less stable form of relationship today than it was 15 years ago. Even then, cohabitation was markedly less stable than marriage. Less than a quarter of first cohabitations last five years and just one in nineteen of all cohabiting couples (5.3 per cent) has been together for ten years or more.
- This is particularly pronounced for those couples with children. The proportion of couples still cohabiting by the time their first child is 16 has dropped more than five-fold over 14 years. In contrast, over the same 14 years, marriage has become a more stable family background for children. So, married couples are now more than ten times as likely to stay together until their child is 16 – 75 per cent, compared with just 7 per cent of cohabiting ones.
- The incidence of separation is particularly high around anniversary months. The same is true, to a lesser degree, for marriage – couples choose significant times.
- Contrary to popular opinion, cohabitation does not serve as a ‘trial marriage’ or reduce the odds of divorce. Not only this, but previous studies suggesting that first cohabitations among the nevermarried that lead to marriage do not significantly affect the divorce rate are emphatically not supported by this data set: such couples are 60 per cent more likely to divorce than those who have not first lived together.
- The increased divorce rate is not explained by taking into account the length of time that cohabitees have already lived together. Couples who live together before marriage are 60 per cent more likely to divorce within ten years of the start of their live-in relationship.
- The marriages of people who do not cohabit before marriage tend to last an average of four years longer than those who do cohabit before getting married – 13 years compared with 9 years. Couples who cohabited prior to marriage and later divorced are likely to have done so within 7.5 years of their marriage. Couples who did not cohabit prior to marriage and later divorced are likely to have done so within 11.5 years.
A further disturbing fact is that ‘a baby born to cohabiting parents is now more than ten times as likely to see its parents separate than one born to married parents.’
As far as the cost of family breakdown is concerned,
The cost of family breakdown to society, whether parents have cohabited or married, is enormous. Whilst the emotional cost (which inevitably has consequences for mental health and economic productivity) is difficult to quantify, a reasonable estimate can be made of the cost to the taxpayer.
The Relationships Foundation has published annual data for the financial cost of family failure. The direct costs are analysed in terms of Tax and Benefits, Housing, Health and Social Care, Civil and Criminal Justice, and Education. For 2007-08, the cost of family breakdown totals £41.7 billion. This is equivalent to £1,350 per taxpayer per year.
Cohabitation has become an increasingly popular lifestyle. Cohabitation is to some extent a protest against the marriage conventions, hypocrisies, and failures of the previous generation. Indeed, it might be regarded as marriage in all but name, except that two essential elements are usually missing: (a) the promise of a life-time commitment; (b) the public context in which marriage is undertaken. With regard to (a), the provisional nature of the relationship is bound to destabilise it – one third of couples cohabit for less than a year, and only 16% live with their partner for more than five years. With regard to (b), it is only right and fair that family and friends should know what kind of relationship exists, so that they can adjust to it, say their goodbyes, celebrate, and promise support in the future. Moreover, sexual intimacy is, of course, private, but the relationship in which it takes place is not. It is highly advantageous, if not actually essential, that such a relationship be recognised and protected in law. Again, marriage being instituted by God, it is highly appropriate that marriages, at least of believers, should take place in the context a church service, and thus before God and before the people of God.
Cohabitation is perceived to have a number of advantages: easier to begin and end than marriage, cheaper, more loving (not depending on ‘a piece of paper’), providing an opportunity to ‘try marriage out’ before making a full commitment, offering a relationship where the roles do not conform to the traditional stereotype, and combining the benefits of a close partnership with those of singleness.
What are the biblical and theological perspectives that we might bring to beat on the question of cohabitation?
Cohabitation as an alternative to marriage
The idea of a man and a woman living together as if they were married, but without the formality and expense of a wedding ceremony, has been widely accepted and practised in many societies for a long time. This raises a set of difficult pastoral questions: What constitutes marriage? Should such couples be urged by the church to formalise their relationship? How should we regard those members of the church who live together for part of the time, by spending the weekend or holidays together?
If marriage is between two people whom God has ‘joined together’ (Mt 19:6), this raises the question: whom do we regard as having been ‘joined together by God? Those who have had a church ceremony? Those who have entered into a civil partnership? Those who live together? Those who have had sex together? A biblical view of marriage certainly does not require an elaborate, expensive, ceremony. What it does entail is ‘leaving’ (a definite and public departure from the parental relationship), ‘cleaving’ (a definite and public commitment to be permanently united with one other person), and ‘becoming one flesh’ (relational and sexual intimacy with that one other person). See Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5; Eph 5:31.
Although Scripture does not explicitly mention vows, the idea of unconditional promises made before witnesses is implied in the biblical notion of ‘cleaving’. Cohabitation is a private arrangement for the present time, whereas marriage is a publicly-declared permanent covenant. Moreover, marriage involves the uniting not only of individuals, but also of families, whereas cohabitation is essentially a private, individualised relationship, largely blind to this community dimension.
So far as becoming ‘one flesh’ is concerned, sex outside of marriage ‘violates the inner reality of the act; it is wrong because unmarried people thereby engage in life-uniting acts without a life-uniting intent’ (Lewis Smedes).
Although cohabitation is celebrated because it appears to be freer than marriage, this very freedom introduces fear, uncertainty and instability. Real freedom ‘grows best in the security of a loving, committed, permanent relationship’ (Jenkins).
Stott writes that ‘some cohabitation may almost be regarded as marriage by another name, since the essence of marriage (a covenant commitment) is there. Nevertheless, two essential elements are usually missing. The first is the promise of a lifetime commitment. Too much cohabitation is an open-ended arrangement, a kind of trail marriage, in which permanent commitment has been replaced by a temporary experiment. This cannot be called marriage; moreover, its provisional nature is bound to destabilize the relationship. The second missing element in cohabitation is the public context in which marriage is undertaken.’
Cohabitation as a prelude to marriage
For the last 20 years, cohabitation before marriage has been the majority practice. Many couples regard cohabitation as a ‘trial marriage’. The problem here is that marriage cannot be simulated. It is an unconditional and permanent covenant, sealed by public vows. The only way to try out marriage is to get married. As Karl Barth pointed out, a person who enters marriage must renounce all thought of ever leaving it, which is precisely the possibility that cohabitation keeps open. Cohabitation can only be ‘pretend marriage’, and therefore illusory as a way of assessing marriagability.
To put it another way: there is a profound difference between being only lovers, and being husband and wife. The former lasts while the couple feel ‘in love’, meet one another’s needs, and make one another happy. But marriage, while by no means excluding such factors, also includes self-sacrifice and the determination to keep promises. It is not at all unusual for a couple who have been cohabiting to find that the dynamics of their relationship have changed drastically when they become married. This helps to account for the fact that could who marry cohabitation are much more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited. But the problem in that case is not with marriage, but with poor preparation for marriage. Although couples who have cohabited may feel that they need little marriage preparation, they may actually need it all the more.
Cohabitation not only affects the relationship between the couple, but also affects their relationship with any child they bring into the world. Just as the relationship itself lacks a rock-solid foundation, so does the family as a whole. If a child is conceived, the couple have to decide whether to go for abortion or perhaps to marry and give the child a permanent home. But in the latter case the presence of the child would then be the principal reason for getting married, potentially putting further stress on the dynamics of the family.
If marriage is characterised by permanence, it is also characterised by definiteness. Cohabitation often begins in a casual way, with no discussion of its likely duration. It may be that one person (the woman, in many cases?) is more definite in her wishes than the other, and this can lead to bitter disappointment.
Stott concludes that ‘it is more accurate and more helpful to speak of cohabitation as falling short of marriage than as a stepping-stone towards it.’ He quotes George Carey: ‘Cohabitation is not, and cannot be, marriage in all but name. Marriage is public and formal, whereas…cohabiting relationships…remain private and provisional in status…Marriate, not cohabitation, is the institution which is at the heart of the good society, and let us not be reluctant to say so.’
If the essence of marriage is unconditional covenant, then some couples who cohabit may have stumbled upon this covenant without realising it, and may therefore be able to enjoy the blessings that God intended for the married. On the other hand, other couples (some of whom may be Christians who had a marriage ceremony in church) may have stumbled into marriage without entering into its covenant, and have never really been ‘joined together by God’. But such a couple should not readily conclude that their marriage lacks God’s blessing: better to enter late into the covenant than to conclude that they should never have married in the first place.
Marriage in all three of its main aspects (leaving, cleaving, and becoming one flesh) is a process, and not merely an event. At every stage, the couple need to work at it. In the Western world, the traditional order is: cleaving (friendship), leaving (the parental home), and becoming one flesh (sexual intimacy). In the arranged-marriage system that is more common in the East, the usual order is: leaving, becoming one flesh, and cleaving (see Gen 24:67). In cohabitation, if it leads to marriage, the order is: cleaving, becoming one flesh, and leaving. When exposed to the teaching of Scripture, a cohabiting couple may come to see that they have not been following God’s pattern, and may wish to repent and prepare for full marriage. In this case, some churches have found that an extended period of public non-cohabitation to be a constructive step towards this.
As Christians, then, we do not agree that cohabitation is effective as either a replacement for marriage or as a preparation for it. But neither do with think that a mere legal transaction or a church ceremony guarantees that God has brought a couple together. We will be committed to teaching the biblical view of marriage, to treating with humility, honesty and compassion those who find themselves living outside of God’s declared purpose in this regard, and to supporting all who are seeking to be obedient God’s will and purpose through that ever-developing process that is marriage.
We should eschew generalisations. We should recognise that some cohabitation arrangements are closer to the biblical normal than some marriages are. We should be sensitive to the fact that some have entered into a cohabiting relationship because they have been badly hurt in a marriage relationship. We should take marriage preparation for those who have previously cohabited seriously, remembering that ‘a wedding will not automatically regularise a relationship if it is founded on unbiblical ideas that have gone unchallenged’ (Jenkins). We should develop a persuasive apologetic for marriage, and be prepared to teach this to a sceptical generation.
Based on the relevant articles in
Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, Complete Handbook of Everyday Christianity.
G.J. Jenkins, in David Atkinson & David Field, New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology.
John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., pp362-366.