Cohabitation for Idiots

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By Arron Chambers

OK, I can hear what you’re thinking. This is an opinion section in the Christian Standard, and you’re going to try convinciing me that living together before marriage is a bad idea. Why don’t you stop wasting my time and tell me why I’m right to believe it’s a sin for women to serve Communion?

Well, because I’m not and you’re wrong, but that’s just my opinion and not the point of this opinion piece.

And anyway, I’m the one who was asked to write an opinion article about something I care about and I want to write about cohabitation, which I’m a lot more excited about than what I was previously going to try to write about, which was an article about why we don’t use hymnbooks at Journey Christian Church (where I am the lead minister), which I realized was quite simple to answer: because we don’t want to—and by “we” I mean those in the leadership team who lose sleep over reaching lost people.

So, that’s that, and now I really do want to try to convince you that living together before marriage is a bad idea—and by “you” I mean “you members of the Christian church,” because according to a survey on my blog,1 which more than 1,600 of you answered, the majority of you Christian church people who took my survey (40 percent) believe it’s OK to live together before marriage.2

I do a ton of marriage counseling. Currently I’m working with about a dozen couples from all over the country. In the past 21 years of ministry I’ve worked with hundreds of couples, with most of it being—what I would call—“crisis marriage counseling” with couples who are having huge problems that are directly connected to the fact that they cohabitated before their wedding day.

So, let me “waste” a few moments of your precious time and share why I think cohabitation is an idiotic thing to do.

Bad Stuff—Like Sin

Cohabitation makes it easy for bad stuff to move into a relationship.

Stuff like sin.

Cohabitation is not a sin, but it makes it easy for sin to occur.

Just like every prisoner is innocent, almost every cohabitating couple I counsel is not having sex. They’re like the young man who denied to his visiting mother that he and his live-in girlfriend were sleeping together. His mother had her doubts, but kept them to herself as she went home that evening. A week later her son wrote her this e-mail, “Mom, I’m not accusing you of anything, but we’ve not been able to find our remote control ever since your visit.” To which his mom replied, “Son, I’m not accusing you of anything, but if your girlfriend was sleeping in her own bed you would have found your remote by now.”

I have my doubts, too.

Regardless of whether or not they are engaging in premarital sex, I rarely meet cohabitating Christian couples who are proud of their living situation. Trust me, there are two groups of people to whom Christian couples don’t like to admit they are living together before marriage: preachers and grandmas. Why? Because, especially if they are Christians, they know—for reasons they can’t quite explain—they are doing something wrong.

When I meet a young Christian couple living together before marriage, I see good people who have put themselves in a bad position.

As Christians we are to “avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22) and we’re to avoid things that make our brothers and sisters in Christ “stumble” (1 Corinthians 10:32), and we’re definitely not supposed to be having sex with someone to whom we’re not married.3

Yes, cohabitation is not sinful, but it looks bad, causes Christian observers to stumble, and—from my experience as a counselor—makes being good really hard to do.

Bad Stuff—Like Insecurity

The Bible teaches that marriage is a covenantal relationship in which God unites a man and a woman so they are as one person.4 Covenants serve to bring stability and security to society and relationships.

Couples who are living together before marriage have, what I call, “convenient love,” not covenant love. Convenient love breeds, among other things, insecurity and instability. Convenient love and covenant love are not the same thing. The chart on this page details the differences.

Those who support living together before marriage preach that it’s the best way to prepare for their future marriage because, while cohabitating, they learn whether or not they actually can stand living together. Well, that’s no fun and it’s definitely not covenant love.

My wife and I were virgins who had never lived with anyone of the opposite sex (besides siblings of course) before our wedding day, so we had no idea whether or not we were going to be able to stand living with each other, but . . . it didn’t matter.

I didn’t know she didn’t like taking out the trash.

She didn’t know that I like griping about her not taking out the trash.

I didn’t know she was serious when she said she wanted to have a cat.

She didn’t know I was serious when I said I think cats are what people are given when they arrive in Hell. “Welcome to Hell. Here’s your cat.”

I didn’t know she slurps while eating her cereal and she didn’t know I burp after eating mine, but that’s what makes marriage fun. Not the slurping and burping, but the adventure of learning to live with and love each other.

It was pure adventure and it was a pure adventure, so it was so much fun. Everything was a new experience to us both as a couple and individuals. Experiencing all of these new experiences together bonded us in a powerful way.

Convenient love (i.e., cohabitation) doesn’t make marriage more secure, but more insecure. Did you know that 40 percent of couples who live together will end their relationships before marriage?5 Did you know that couples who live together before marriage have higher separation and divorce rates? The Journal of Marriage and Family reported marriages that are preceded by living together have 50 percent higher disruption rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation.6 Researchers from Yale University, Columbia University, and the Institute for Resource Development at Westinghouse revealed the divorce rates of women who cohabit are nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not.7

Which is all to say, I think cohabitation is an idiotic way to start a marriage and I’m pretty sure there’s a good hymn to support my opinion, but I can’t seem to find a hymnbook at church with which to verify that point, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. And by “my” word, I really mean you should take “my” word: the word of a preacher who does a ton of marriage counseling and would prefer to do much less of it.

________

1http://mylordandmyblog.wordpress.com.

2According to a survey on this post which has been viewed by more than 24,000 readers: http://mylordandmyblog.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/seven-reasons-why-living-together-before-marriage-is-not-a-good-idea/.

3Exodus 20:14; Acts 15:20; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13, 18; 7:2; 10:8; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; and Jude 7.

4Malachi 2:14 and Matthew 19:6.

5Larry L. Bumpass, James A. Sweet, and Andrew Cherlin, “The Role of Cohabitation in Declining Rates Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, 1991, 913-927.

6Ibid.

7Neil Bennett, et al., “Commitment and the Modern Union: Assessing the Link Between Premarital Cohabitation and Subsequent Marital Stability,” American Sociological Review 53, 1988, 127-138.

Arron Chambers, minister with Journey Christian Church, Greeley, Colorado, is a Christian Standard contributing editor. His book Eats With Sinners, from Standard Publishing, was named as one of Outreach magazine’s outstanding resources of the year.

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11 Comments

  1. Arron,

    Thank you for posting this. I have a lot of respect for you and your writing, and I’m really grateful for your wisdom and insight.

    Also, any advice that will help keep more marriages together is greatly needed and appreciated. : )

    God Bless

  2. Arron,

    I agree with your message totally, and cringe at the number of ‘Christians’ who have an ‘anything goes’ mentality. However, I have to tell you that I almost didn’t read this post simply because of the title. I find the title condescending and offensive, in spite of the fact that I agree with the message. The title, unfortunately, appeals to ‘Christians’ who already know exactly what they believe about this subject and therefore limits the impact it will have on those who could really benefit. I’m connecting with a young woman (Christian) who is breaking free from just such an arrangement after I showed her in the Bible that God does not bless or honour these arrangements. I can’t imagine that seeing this title would do her a bit of good.

    Great article but would recommend–not that it’s my business–a new title so that people who feel as I do about respectfully leading others to truth, can share it on Facebook and other media. As it stands I would block it from showing up on my page.

    Respectfully,
    Trudy

  3. Even though i agree with your basic position, i think your article is terribly counter-productive.

    (1) There are people who are now married who made the mistake of living together first. Is there forgiveness for them? Can God take them where they are? Can their marriage still be holy and pleasing to God? i’d never know it from your article. –not because you don’t cover these questions specifically, but because the candor of your article frankly paints such people as stupid and not worth addressing respectfully.

    (2) Do all marriage/pre-marital customs/norms have to be precisely the same in order for the church to be accepting of them? Ruth spent the night with the man she wanted to marry and even uncovered his “feet” while he slept (are you aware that ‘feet’ is likely a euphemism?). Mary and Joseph traveled extensively together before they wed. Were they all being stupid? Were they being idiots? Were they unwisely inviting sin? Perhaps, just perhaps, American or Southern American culture is not the sole repository of truth concerning proprietary social norms.

    (3) Do Christians typically feel guilty and ashamed of such living situations? Yes. But what else would we expect when there is the tremendous cultural and social negativity attached to sex in the Christian community? Tell me, do people feel nearly as guilty or ashamed for not helping the poor? Do people feel nearly as guilty and ashamed for bearing grudges against those in their church or gossiping about those in their church or not showing hospitality to members of their own church? The people to whom and about whom you are speaking have been culturally inculcated to feel the tremendous psychological angst regarding this topic. You mention their guilt as if it’s proof that such people know better and know how awful what they’re doing is. Maybe such guilt is evidence of the church’s very poor weighting of ethics. If the church made people feel as guilty over hospitality, love, poverty-relief, compassion, and respect of each other as it does over sex, maybe the church’s effect and influence in the world today would be quite different.

    (4) Suppose you were on the opposite side. Suppose you and your (now) wife were cohabiting. Or suppose you were simply of the group who believed pre-marital cohabiting was okay. Would this article convince you otherwise? How would you feel when reading this article? Would you feel loved? Respected? Would you come away feeling as though your brother simply cared about you and wanted the best for you?

    –guy

  4. Trudy–Good point. I actually wish I would have given my article a different title. That decision could have used a little more thought on my part. It’s kind of funny–and kind of not–that I was intending to play off of the well-known “for Dummies” book series but mis-remembered the title of that series. Anyway, thanks for your insights and–as a guy who loves to “eat with sinners” I regret that this article won’t be helpful to you to that end. You have my permission to copy it and past it with a title of your choosing. Blessings, Arron

  5. “Guy,”
    See my previous comment for my opinion of the title I used.
    I stand by what I wrote, but do wish that my heart for dealing with “sinners” graciously would have been more evident.
    This was an opinion article directed at Christians. I used hyperbole to make my point–which I still stand by: cohabitation is unwise.
    To your other points, my responses are embedded below:
    (1) There are people who are now married who made the mistake of living together first. Is there forgiveness for them?–Of course. Can God take them where they are?–Of course. Can their marriage still be holy and pleasing to God?–Of course. i’d never know it from your article. –not because you don’t cover these questions specifically, but because the candor of your article frankly paints such people as stupid and not worth addressing respectfully.–I believe that you missed the point–and spirit–of my article. I don’t believe cohabitation is a sin. I do believe that cohabitation is unwise for the reasons detailed in my article. I do wish I would have shown a bit more grace, but I was writing “angry” after an intense counseling session with a couple who are headed for divorce because they lived together before they got married. It’s never wise to write while emotional.

    (2) Do all marriage/pre-marital customs/norms have to be precisely the same in order for the church to be accepting of them? Ruth spent the night with the man she wanted to marry and even uncovered his “feet” while he slept (are you aware that ‘feet’ is likely a euphemism?). Mary and Joseph traveled extensively together before they wed. Were they all being stupid?–It’s absurd for you to suggest that I suggested Mary and Joseph and Ruth were stupid. That’s all I’ll say to that point.– Were they being idiots? Were they unwisely inviting sin? Perhaps, just perhaps, American or Southern American culture is not the sole repository of truth concerning proprietary social norms.

    (3) Do Christians typically feel guilty and ashamed of such living situations? Yes. But what else would we expect when there is the tremendous cultural and social negativity attached to sex in the Christian community? Tell me, do people feel nearly as guilty or ashamed for not helping the poor? Do people feel nearly as guilty and ashamed for bearing grudges against those in their church or gossiping about those in their church or not showing hospitality to members of their own church? The people to whom and about whom you are speaking have been culturally inculcated to feel the tremendous psychological angst regarding this topic. You mention their guilt as if it’s proof that such people know better and know how awful what they’re doing is. Maybe such guilt is evidence of the church’s very poor weighting of ethics. If the church made people feel as guilty over hospitality, love, poverty-relief, compassion, and respect of each other as it does over sex, maybe the church’s effect and influence in the world today would be quite different.
    –All I will say to this series of questions is I believe that Christ-followers should be hospitable, loving, generous to the poor, compassionate, respectful of others AND sexually pure.

    (4) Suppose you were on the opposite side. Suppose you and your (now) wife were cohabiting. Or suppose you were simply of the group who believed pre-marital cohabiting was okay. Would this article convince you otherwise? How would you feel when reading this article? Would you feel loved? Respected? Would you come away feeling as though your brother simply cared about you and wanted the best for you?–Per the title, see my previous note, read my book “Eats with Sinners,” or visit Journey Christian Church and you’ll see how I really feel about people who are outside of Christ. I wrote this article as an opinion piece for Christians. Thanks for your input.

  6. thanks for the opinion piece. Agree, get your webmaster to swap out the headline, but put a note at the bottom explaining that you did that, so no one thinks you’re trying to get away with something. I think playing on the “for dummies” isn’t a bad idea. but many who might be otherwise convinced by your article that cohabitation is not good might dig in their heals because of the perceived name calling.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. Once again these types of articles are geared toward bright-eyed, naive, 20-something virgins. Having been entangled in a young Christian marriage, and knowing many who are, I could challenge your list. Most of these marriages are entered into because the couple wants to have sex or is having sex and feels guilty. Anyone who meets a cohabitating couple, Christian or not, and thinks they are not sleeping together is laughable. I’d like to see an actual article for us divorced 40-somethings the church likes to marginalize or ignore. And why shouldn’t the church? We know the truth, that is scary. I see absolutely no point in a legal marriage except to pacify a bunch of judgmental legalists, it confers few benefits and makes one vulnerable to financial destruction and legally enslaves a person to another. When I was bright-eyed and and naive, I could never have imagined standing facing that person, now vengeful and angry, who spent 2 years financially destroying me in court and leaving me to raise the kids on my own thereafter. I work like a dog and have major legal bills to pay off. I have three kids, one is permanently disabled. My boyfriend’s credit was trashed in his divorce and he now has custody of his kid, while rebuilding his life, credit, finances, and going to college. I have a good career and make more than him, so there is no way (knowing what I know now) that I would make myself vulnerable to paying alimony in the future. We are already sleeping together; most couples who say they are not are liars, trust me, especially after divorce. Unfortunately that’s life. Moving in together will save on the bills because we can split expenses and there will be no sitting expenses because our schedules work that way. Practical. We are older and not interested in procreating. Marriage will ruin my boyfriend’s government aid for college because when my income is factored in, he will only qualify for loans…. More debt.

    Your list is mostly presumption and not based in reality. Rational? How many 20-somethings in the church get married because they are having sex or want to have sex? Alot. Is that “rational”? No, it is guilt/shame-based. Thought vs feeling. I think my situation is more logical and thought-based. You can’t say that every marriage is entered into rationally and thoughtfully, vs driven by feelings. And that every cohabitation situation is driven by irrational thoughts and feelings. Happiness and self pleasure vs joy and pleasure of another? Again, presumptive. My boyfriend and I are much more each-other focused; in fact, after two decades of being told by my husband that my body belonged to him because he had the ownership paper — marriage contract — sex outside of that has been healing and freeing. Again, it is more an act of love and even passion now, than the mechanical, joyless obligation it had become in marriage. Choice vs feeling? Presumptive. Marriage does not guarantee unconditional love, just as absence of marriage does not negate it. The only reason marriage avoids controversy is because of people who continue to be judgmental. What other things should I engage in to avoid the controversy and judgment of others, and what “others”? Should we stop being Christians when it produces controversy? Marriage IS a piece of paper, a human construct, that is not necessarily forever. Choosing to stay with someone is a state of mind, a promise made in one’s heart and will, no government paper can confer that. When the other person wants to go though, or in my case had to go for safety reasons, that government paper is a trap. There are many people, especially womwn, who are literally trapped in marriages because their husband is so abusive and vindictive, and also the prime income earner, they literally fear for their lives, security, and futures to leave. So your idealistic and presumptive list is based on mostly naivete and no real-world understanding of an actual loving, nonmarried relationship that doesnt fit your tawdry imaginings.

    I’m sure this will be moderated and not posted. I wanted to say my piece though.

  8. My dear sister,

    You have been grievously wounded by a husband who distorted the teachings of the Bible and failed to use his marriage as an opportunity to attempt to depict Chist’s self sacrificing love for His bride, the church.

    I also agree that many marriages are entered into to either get the opportunity for sex or to eliminate the guiltiness of sex outside of marriage.

    It pains me that the only way forward you could see was to knowingly ignore what you knew to be right. I don’t condemn you for this. I suspect the same situation would drive many or even most of us to follow the same path.

    However, it is not what Arron says, or what I say that matters. It’s pretty clear from what you write that you want to identify as a Christian while disobeying what you know the Bible says.

    Majority practice, however well-intentioned, does not over-rule what God has told us in love for our own good.

    I hope that you are fortunate to have friends in your life who love you unconditionally. Your salvation, and that of your dear children, is too important to be trapped by the pain your ex-husband caused.

  9. Al,

    For clarification, what do you mean by “It pains me that the only way forward you could see was to ignore what you knew to be right?” What are you referring to, leaving my marriage or possibly cohabitating in the future? As for leaving my marriage, I was no longer going to waste my life with a mistake I made when I was young and stupid. I have a finite amount of years on this earth and there are some Christians that seek to enslave people to a piece of paper that may have been entered into in poor jidgement. Especially if someone came from an abusive household, they are more likely to marry an abuser. They may not understand this until they are older and wiser. I feel that the church is so afraid of sex do they push people into marriage and then try to force them to stay in what may clearly be a mistake.

    I dont agree with what legal marriage is in our society. I do not need Uncle Sam dictating to me, if I can or can not get out of said contract, and under what terms. I do not need or want a gov’t contract that binds me financially (credit too) and legally to a person. Just as I am sure you would not agree with what marriage was in the Bible which was mostly polygamy or a system buying and selling women. As society progressed, so did the ideals of what is a “marriage”.

    I tried going back to church after my divorce. I was struggling fiercely with depression and anger and fear. They were there for me some. Most resources are directed towards intact families amd most singles resources towards the young adults never married group. The single parents and divorced are mostly left to flounder and find their own way. I felt marginalized and ignored mostly, as did most of the other singles. We require more support and have less money, a lose lose proposition for churches.

  10. Great article Aaron!

  11. It would help many of us if the writer identifying as “Miss Happy Pants” would help us understand what a loving response would have looked like to her. So many times we fail to see ourselves as we are seen. Certainly in my previous response I made an unwarranted assumption about her beliefs. I’ll stipulate that we come from very different perspectives. I’ll also stipulate that some of our churches may not do as well as others at welcoming the newly divorced. I’m encouraged, though, that you had hoped to find a warm and welcoming place – we have a common view about what the church ought to feel like.
    If you would, could you expand for us what the church might want to consider doing to more effectively live out those high expectations in this area? Maybe some of our churches could do better the next time a newly divorced person seeks healing, and your perspectives could help us get there.

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