Larry Hoop on the Unraveling of Marriage With Barely a Whimper of Protest

Larry Hoop is a retired teaching elder who works part time for the PCA Administrative Committee. Prior to his retirement, he was pastor of Colfax Center Presbyterian Church in Holland, Iowa, for 24 years. He and his wife, Debbie, live on the farm in Adams County, Ohio, where he grew up. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, and same-sex marriage became the law of the land. Various Christian leaders described themselves as grieved, troubled, and sobered by the decision. They characterized it as a tragic error and an assault on marriage. Properly so, for in a 28-page opinion, a bare majority of five justices to four overturned the millennia-old understanding that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Yet one could argue that another trend in our culture has done more to undermine the institution of marriage, with far less vocal protest from the Church: the practice of premarital cohabitation. Consider, for example, that Gallup estimates that in the year after Obergefell v. Hodges, 123,000 same-sex marriages took place, less than six percent of all marriages solemnized in the United States. By contrast, a study conducted by the Barna Group in April 2016 found that 57 percent of adults either were currently or had previously lived together outside of marriage, including 48 percent of practicing Christians. The study also found widespread popular support for the practice — 65 percent of adults agreed that it is a good idea, including 41 percent of practicing Christians.

The number of cohabiting couples has increased from 439,000 in 1960 to 8,075,000 in 2016, according to the Census Bureau, an increase of more than 1,739 percent. Barna editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone observes that America has passed the tipping point concerning cohabitation.

“Living together before marriage is no longer an exception,” she notes, “but instead has become an accepted and expected milestone of adulthood.” In their book “Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers,” Mike and Harriet McManus write, “Without debate or public notice, and with too little dismay or concern voiced even by the church, living together has become the dominant way American couples start their life together.”

Trending Toward Cohabitation

How did this happen? Two trends in American culture can be identified as contributing to this phenomenon.

The first is the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s, spawned in part by easy access to the birth control pill. This cultural wave yielded the practice of “hooking up,” where sex, rather than being reserved for marriage, is often treated as nothing more than a pleasurable end to a night on the town.

As Amy Tracy reported in her article “Cohabitation as a Means to Marriage,” one young woman told her, “We slept together on the second date. There was no hesitation; it just seemed like what you do.” When sex and marriage have become so separated in a culture, it isn’t surprising that hybrid relationships develop.

The second cultural trend that has influenced the rise of cohabitation is another product of the ‘60s, the upsurge in divorce, particularly after the introduction of no-fault divorce. Since 1970, 42 million people have experienced the divorce of their parents, often more than once. A pastor serving as chaplain of the local high school football team recounted a conversation he had with one of the team members; the pastor had mentioned that he had seven siblings. “So do I,” the football player said. “And three fathers and two mothers.”

Those who have lived through such family instability don’t want to reproduce it for their children. They want to be sure their marriage will work. Thus was born the conventional wisdom behind most cohabiting relationships: try it out first.

Barna’s research shows that 84 percent of couples who live together say they want to test their compatibility; that’s the main reason they cohabit. University of Michigan sociologists Pamela Smock and Wendy Manning report that today’s young people “think it would be idiotic not to live with someone before marriage.”

An analogy is often drawn to making a major purchase: “If you wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, why would you make a far more significant decision — marrying somebody — without a trial?”

At first blush this seems like a common-sense argument, understandable considering the number of marriages that fail, until you consider the analogy more closely. In Jeff VanGoethem’s book “Living Together,” he asks three penetrating questions:

•When you test-drive a car and decide not to buy it, does the car feel rejected?
•Will it carry baggage from its rejection into the next test drive?
•Are its chances of being a good family car damaged because you didn’t buy it?

Simply asking these questions demonstrates the utter failure of the analogy to convey the emotional and spiritual complexities of being human. It should be no surprise, then, that study after study reveals how cohabitation fails as a predictor of marital success.

Ironically, it fails in its very purpose: the prevention of divorce. Of the 50 percent of cohabiting relationships that proceed to marriage, 67 percent end in divorce (compared to the usual 45 percent for first marriages). Thus, cohabitation appears to promote the main thing it is meant to prevent.

The Essential Role of Honesty and Commitment

Why would cohabitation fail to ensure the success of a resulting marriage? The primary reason appears to be the absence of commitment. Unlike media portrayals where the couple discusses whether to take their relationship to “the next level” (moving in together), most cohabiting couples slide into that decision rather than decide.

It begins with a dating relationship that soon becomes sexual. As time goes on, he is sleeping over at her place on a semi-regular basis. She suggests it would be more economical for him to move all his stuff to her place — besides, then they could be together every night. In an article in The New York Times, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, states that such “drifting” into cohabitation not only lacks the public markers of rings and ceremonies that characterize marriage, but frequently doesn’t even involve a conversation.

“Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.” Often they have entirely different agendas, she says. “Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone a commitment.” Such ambiguity often creates instability in the relationship and insecurity in the partners, especially the partner who brings a higher degree of commitment to the arrangement.

The lack of commitment inherent in cohabitation can also contribute to a lack of honesty. As the McManuses point out, cohabitation is a kind of audition for marriage. The couple is evaluating each other to determine how compatible they are. Since each wants to be judged as meeting the other’s expectations, they may be reluctant to reveal certain things about themselves. Perhaps this is one reason Dr. Catherine Cohan of Pennsylvania State University found that married couples who had lived together first were more negative and less supportive of their partners when trying to resolve marital problems — they had practiced hiding things from each other before the wedding.

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Source: By Faith