I recently spoke with a pastor friend about the flood of couples who are already living together, but still want us to perform a marriage ceremony. My friend said: “I don’t even know why people get married anymore.”
A good question. Cohabitation is now the most common form of first unions among young adults. But is it the same as marriage? Is it the ‘new marriage’ in the 21st century?
Most church weddings involve the signing of the marriage license and a prayer that God will join the couple together. These two events distinguish marriage from cohabitation, and represent an acknowledgement by the couple that they are entering both a legal contract and a holy covenant agreement.
The church does not take its lead from society, but from God. Government legalization of marriages is second to the fact that God joins the couple and makes them holy.
With the founding of the church, God revealed marriage as a model of the relationship between Christ and the church.
As the church developed, its role in marriages moved beyond its Jewish/Roman roots – to the point that the church became the only authoritative officiant of Christian weddings.
Throughout the Christian era, the Christian community recognized marriage as a life-long covenant with God; consequently divorce was almost non-existent.
But after World War I, in the Roaring 20s, public attitudes to non-marital sexuality became much more relaxed. The sexual revolution of the 1960s led to increasing divorce rates, cohabitation as a viable alternative – and declining marriage rates.
Unlike the outcry regarding skyrocketing divorce rates, cohabitation came into vogue with barely a peep. The effects of these demographic shifts continue to be felt.
Cohabitation has become a form of dating for the many who participate in it. Young adults are spending longer periods of time in singlehood, while pursuing advanced education and establishing themselves financially.
With society adopting a more accepting attitude to sex outside of marriage, with effective birth control and with couples feeling the negative effects of the divorce culture, young people are in no rush to enter marriage.
Yet, in spite of this trend, Canada’s youth still have a desire to get married, and the majority eventually will. So how does cohabitation fit in? Here are some facts to consider:
- Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage.
- Primarily younger adults cohabit, although the percentage in all age groups is rising.
- Living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence for women, and the risk of physical and sexual abuse for children.
- Unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness than married couples.
- Multiple short-term cohabitations are very detrimental to future relationship stability.
- Commitment levels by cohabiting partners are known to be less than those of partners in a marriage.
- Women experience a disproportionate amount of the negative aspects of cohabitation.
I realize marriage does not immunize a couple from any of these problems; but it does reduce the likelihood of them, and I think that is an important message to send to our youth.
Researchers David Popenoe and Barbara Whitehead, of the National Marriage Project, summarize their research thus: “Despite its widespread acceptance by the young, the remarkable growth of cohabitation in recent years does not appear to be in children’s or the society’s best interest.”
Anne-Marie Ambert, of the Vanier Institute of the Family, states: “Cohabitation is a more insecure and potentially hurtful situation than marriage is, even considering the current divorce rate.”
What should the church do? Social experts are by no means in total agreement about the negative consequences of cohabitation. But regardless of the secular community’s view on cohabitation, how are we as Christians to view this approach to relationships? Is cohabitation the same as marriage?
A clue is found in the concept of betrothal. In Bible times, being betrothed was similar to our modern idea of engagement. It was a formal agreement, in which a couple were committed to marry each other; sexual intimacy was not accepted within this agreement.
Common reasons cited for cohabitation include the benefits of sharing expenses; an opportunity to experience married life; and access to regular sexual intimacy. It is the latter that Christians need to deal with. A large percentage of Canadians – and Christians – are accepting of a consenting couple in a committed relationship being sexually active.
Less than 16 percent of Canadians think sex before marriage is wrong. A study of ‘born again’ Christians found that 26 percent of traditional evangelicals saw nothing wrong with premarital sex, compared to 46 percent of non-traditionals.
Yet I don’t see how scripture makes provision for sexual expression outside a heterosexual marriage union. Period.
Marriage has taken many forms over the history of humanity; but even in its secular form, it has always been distinguished from casual and even premarital relationships.
I believe the church should always be pro-marriage. That means educating our young people about the sacredness of marriage. We need to help them not settle for imitations and shortcuts – which not only fall short of the original, but may also damage experiencing the fullness of a future marriage.
We also need to recognize that we live in a broken world, with fallen people. We confront divorce issues in the church – even though God weeps at divorce. In the same way, we need not shy away from dealing with cohabiting couples who seek to glorify God with their lives.
Marriage is God’s design, and a committed cohabiting couple must be encouraged to move toward that design and recognize the fruitlessness of their current arrangement. There is no middle ground. The process of helping a couple move in this direction requires grace and support, not condemnation.
Cohabitation is not the new marriage. It is not the same as marriage. This is a message we need to get out.
Todd Martin is pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Abbotsford. Reprinted, with permission, from Northern Light.