Cohabitation: Why not live together?

Doesn’t it make sense to test the relationship or to save money by living together before marriage? According to research, cohabitation actually has negative consequences on the longevity of the relationship. In this episode, we share fascinating insights on the differences between people who are cohabitating and married, and also how to walk alongside those who are struggling in this area.


Transcript

Chris Grace:

Hey welcome again to The Art of Relationships, a podcast with Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Hey Chris. How are you this morning?

Chris Grace:

I'm doing great and Chris Grace here. What we do this podcast time is to spend time looking at all things relationships. One of the cool things that we get to do Tim is to sit here and visit and talk about some things that we're interested in, passionate about, and that we think listeners really have interest in.

 

One of those has come up recently in a lot of conversations that I've had and I know you've had. That's from couples, pastors, single people, and other saying, "Hey, what's going on with cohabitation? Why not living together? What is wrong with that? Why are so many people doing that?". I thought well, let's try this out. Let's have a podcast on this and let's talk about it. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Absolutely. We've been speaking with FamilyLife Matter Conferences for over 20 years. We speak to pre-marrieds. We have a whole session that's designed for people who are seriously dating or engaged. I remember 20 years ago speaking at my very first session. I mentioned that God reserves sex for marriage and a guy shouts from the audience, "Wrong!" and I was like wow. Afterwards he came up and he was pretty heated because they were living together, but he was clearly the anomaly ...

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

... In that session. Now fast forward 20 years and it's roughly 50% of the people attending the pre-married part ...

Chris Grace:

Wow. That's amazing

Tim Muehlhoff:

... Of the conference are living together. Chris we've got to address this issue and bring clarity to it and understand why people do it and not judge people quickly, but understand what's leading them to make this kind of a decision.

Chris Grace:

Tim, what are the numbers out there. I mean you mentioned in your conferences 50% and you mentioned ... Is this really that big of a deal? Here's what stands out to me when I'm asked that question. Since I have been born, I was born in the 60's, and since that time the numbers of people ... I think if you went back and looked at some research it would be, for first time marriages, it would be virtually impossible to find a large number of couples that actually lived together before marriage. Today it seems like the number is ... Like you said, at this conference 50%. Imagine just overall those are huge numbers out there.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah. Here's the numbers from the census bureau, particularly the 2011 census bureau. In 1970 only about 500,000 couples lived together. Now roughly 5 million opposite sex couples in the United States live together outside of marriage. More than half of the couples will marry. When they move in with each other half the couples will marry within the first 5 years. 40% will split up within the first 5 years and roughly 10% will continue to live together with each other.

Chris Grace:

That means ... Okay. If it's just 2 people, right, I get that, but there's something more that's happening here. If you just look at those numbers. Add in children. Many of them are going to have children cohabitating together. That means up to 40% of American children are going to be in this place where they are no longer living in a home with 2 intact parents.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right. Another interesting part of this census bureau would be what are the top reasons people would identify as living together and here they are. Not in any particular order. We don't want to put that kind of weight on this list. Here are the top reasons. One would be convenience. Another would be to test the relationship before the marriage actually happens.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Economic reasons. They don't believe in marriage or fear of divorce are the top reasons that people would self identify this is why we move in together.

Chris Grace:

Yeah, that last one, the fear of divorce seems to ... I think for a lot of researchers out there they have kind of been processing what's been going on with these numbers realizing that this easy access to divorce that's happened over the last 30, 40 years has done something. It's caused a great fear in people. That word scares people and they think I just don't want this to happen to me so if we can get a trial run on this ... If we can just see how well we're going to do this. If we can just practice together then we don't ever have to worry about getting divorced because we'll have this down.

Tim Muehlhoff:

20 years of speaking at FamilyLife Marriage Conferences, if I were to look at that list, here are the 2 that I would pick. This is very much just talking to couples who attend these FamilyLife conferences. I would say the number one reason are economic reasons. Again if you're in certain cities that are just coming out of the recession or still in the recession ...

Chris Grace:

Uh huh.

Tim Muehlhoff:

... Financially you can't make it. You can't have 2 apartments. To come together for economic reasons, but second and maybe the most important one is just convenience.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

We're already seeing each other. You've already got a toothbrush. You already have a dresser drawer. This is crazy, you're over here all the time anyway. Why are we wasting all this money? Why don't you just move in. That's when we would say the problems start to arise if these couples in fact do move towards marriage.

 

Because I think the research is fairly clear that living together before you get married really does have a negative impact on long term relationship of the marriage, right?

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

Isn't that kind of what the research is showing?

Chris Grace:

Oh yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

The million dollar question becomes why. Why is living ... Because Chris don't you think on one hand it just makes a ton of sense?

Chris Grace:

Rationally when you think about the purposes and some of these reasons it doesn't ... You could sit there and go that makes a lot sense, so yeah, sure.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I went to Eastern Michigan University and Dave was a good friend of mine. I'd known him for years. We thought about living together ... In a dorm Chris Grace, in a dorm. We did and we ... You know on paper it was perfect. We're good friends, we know each other, it was a nightmare.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It was a disaster, like that whole year ...

Chris Grace:

Sure. Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

... Was like really. I mean there were things I didn't know about him. Things that I did know about him I didn't was a big deal and the reason they weren't a big deal is I had my own place.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Tim Muehlhoff:

I could go home and get a break. I get it why a lot of couples would say, "Hey listen, let's do this. Let's actually do life together and see if we're good for each. To see if we drive each other crazy." On one hand it just makes a lot of sense, but why is the research pointing in the direction that this just is a bad idea and it has really negative consequences on the longevity of the relationship?

Chris Grace:

Well it turns into I think, the answer a lot of people are pointing to and a lot of the research is saying that something goes on in a marriage that's just simply more than that piece of paper.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah.

Chris Grace:

There is something deeper about it, right. For couples who find themselves kind of sliding into this relationship because it's easy, because it's maybe financial sense, it's a trial run, pretty soon you start to find that what's separating them out becomes clearer and clearer. In research what's demonstrated is there's less of some very important characteristics in cohabitating couples.

 

We should probably talk about that because there's less trust. There's less commitment. At first people just don't think about those as big deals, but those become the issue.

Tim Muehlhoff:

The reason they don't think about it ... I love what one sociologist from Penn State University says. He's come up with something ... I love this. The inertia hypothesis. What he says is that, "Many people just slide into marriage. They start off living with each other and then it becomes like the natural next thing to do, right? We've been together 2 years, 3 years, and now we should probably maybe think about this marriage thing," but here's what he says that I think is brilliant. He says this, "People are much fussier about whom they marry than whom they cohabitate with." Think about it. I wouldn't necessarily move in with this person if it was analogous to marriage, but it's not. We're just moving in with each other. We can call an end to this anytime we want to. My standards aren't as high as they would be if I was actually going to marry this person, but now I'm living with this person and that's when this slide towards marriage just sort of kinda sorta happens.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

If I would have told you in the beginning hey, this is your marriage partner. You might have had much higher standards.

Chris Grace:

Hmm. Well I think what happens there is that easy out happens, right?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah.

Chris Grace:

You carry that with you and you think look this is ... I can ... All's a I got to do is pick up my cat, pick up my clothes and I'm done. I can move out verses that notion of this is going to be a painful, knock down, drag out thing that's going to get into the courts and everything else. They have that trump card don't they?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah and he mentions something else that I didn't even think of. I thought this was brilliant. He said this, we're still a traditional culture even though he believes that living together is here to stay.

Chris Grace:

Uh huh.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That it is on the rise, mostly because of economic reasons and things like that, but he said, "This is the interesting thing people do. Their parents are of a different generation." Right, the parents aren't necessarily buying this living together thing. You can imagine the disappointment of a traditional set of parents to find out that your daughter or your son is now living with a person. How do you get them off your back? The way you get them off your back is you say to mom and dad, "Hey, we are getting married." and they are like, "Oh really?" "Yeah, not now, but we're getting married so don't worry. We're going to eventually become traditional." The parents back off and they say, "Well, okay. I'm not crazy about this idea but they are going to get married." Well guess what? Now you're sort of locked in to that verbal commitment with your parents and he argues, "That helps the slide happen even more. Hey, I did make a promise to my parents. I told them we're going to get married. Hey we need to follow through on this or I'm not a person of my word or I've kind of deceived my parents." That's another way that they slip into the marriage.

Chris Grace:

Yeah. Yep. You know there's something Tim about this that is interesting. I found in my field and that is a study I'd like to just talk about real quickly and get your impact and your feedback on this. It goes like this. They had a couple of researchers. A guy at the University of Virginia. Guy named there is Jim Cohen and what he is is he's an expert on hand holding and in doing that he's been studying that for a long time. It's awesome. Great little studies that he does and it shows there's something cool about it. Different things that ... It's different for different people, but hand holding means something.

 

Anyway, what he did one day is he did a study and he wanted to find out what would happen if he brought people into the lab and in this case he took women and he hooked them up to a shock generator. Put a little tiny, little thing, an ankle ... It gave a little buzz to their ankle. What happened was he wanted to find out if a light came on ... They put them in functional MRI machine just looking to see blood flow going into the brain. Here's what he found, ready? When they ... They were told this light means you're about to get shocked they were obviously very nervous. Their body responded with fear and then there was another light that said the chances of you getting shocked are nothing. It's not going to happen right now. Those couples were ... That person sitting in this ... Or lying in this MRI machine was fine.

 

Then he said what would happen if we used hand holding and what would it be like if a person who's about to get shocked held the hand of a stranger. Guess what? It helped. They weren't as physiologically concerned. That is they weren't as anxious. This light came on. They're about to get a shock on their ankle, it didn't hurt too bad, but it told them they were there, but he then found out and he brought in for these married women. They brought in their husbands and had them hold their hands. He found out that for people who are married their brains didn't respond with as much anxiety and stress if they were holding the hands of their married spouse, but the second group that really surprised him is he brought in cohabitating couples.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Oh wow. Yeah.

Chris Grace:

People who are living together and guess what? Holding the hands of somebody you're cohabitating with did not distinguish them at all from holding the hands of a stranger.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Wow. Yeah

Chris Grace:

In other words somebody who is cohabitating held the hands of the person they are cohabitating with and these women's responses were no different than holding the hands of a stranger. It was amazing to him going, what is it about marriage and cohabitation that has such a big affect that people who are married lowered their stress and anxiety, but not if they were cohabitating. He did the study. It's just recent. It wasn't that long ago probably back in 2006 when he started this.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Wow.

Chris Grace:

He, as a researcher who studied this, said, "The difference comes in. The brain knows the difference between trust and commitment and people who are married have figured out and their brains go I am committed and I trust this person." He believes that people who are cohabitating, while he was surprised thought, "The only thing I could see is that they just simply didn't feel, and their brains knew, we were just living together. If push comes to shove that we don't have a commitment with each other. There's nothing there about trust." That is a powerful study on the differences between people who are cohabitating and people who are married.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Of course we have the backstory to sociology and psychology because we would say the reason that happens is God has hardwired the brain for marriage. All the way to Adam and Eve.

Chris Grace:

Yep.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That beautiful passage in Genesis where they do. They are bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh and there's that life long one flesh commitment. I bet you if you would've interviewed those women and you would've said, "Listen, do you trust the guy you're living with?" I think she would have said, "Yes." "Do you think he's committed to you?" "Yeah I do.", but not to the extent that a person knows that the marriage ... Chris, I always say this to my students. When you stand up in front of a group of your best friends, your family. When you stand up in front of a minister and we believe God and you make that lifetime commitment in front of everybody. There is a stick-to-itiveness of it that just can't be made in private.

 

Let me tell you my favorite study when it comes to this. In Pennsylvania they wanted to study ... I love these psychology studies and com studies because it always seem to be about one thing when really it's not.

Chris Grace:

There's a whole lot more going on. That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Totally different thing. All they wanted to do was see could couples use their air conditioner less in the really hot time of summer, right?

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

They split them into 2 groups. Let's say the Grace family was in group A and the Muehlhoff family is in group B. Group A, they sit down with all the families, including the Grace family, and they say, "Where do you want to commit to to use your air conditioner less?" You would come up with whatever you wanted to. Let's say the Grace family said, "We want to cut down by 20%." Okay awesome. Now go do it.

 

The other group that the Muehlhoff's are in we are asked to pick a number. Whatever number we want. Let's say we pick 25%, but we have to get up in front of the entire group ... The other group and say, "We are committed to hitting that 25%." Doing it in front of a group they saw the success rates that we did so better, our group. Not that we're better people than the Grace's, but that we had to say it in front of our neighbors and look them right in the eye and commit to it.

 

Chris, there's something powerful about that. Living together is this inherently isolating decision where getting married you still have to do it, even if it's in front of a justice of the peace, you make this commitment. I think there's something really powerful to that.

Chris Grace:

Well I believe that is the answer to this particular study as well given the shock. That is you stand up in front of somebody and you are making a commitment. It's this belief in and then you are now, at that moment, making a decision in front of friends, in front of family and peers. I love that notion Tim also of the fact that God is present. He says in his word, which we believe, at that marriage. He is there. He inhabits this place and this marriage. There is something much deeper going on and when we give our word, when we do make a commitment it forces us into doing something and living according to kind of a new reality that sets in. That people who cohabitate don't have to do.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Listen, I love that. I love the sociological idea of what God has kind of constructed that we do marriage and community. Imagine this. Imagine that you and Alisa decide to call it quits. You just say. "Hey you know what we're going to purse a divorce." How many of your friends do you think are at your doorstep the next day. Saying, "Chris. Come on man. What's going on?"

Chris Grace:

Yep. Oh friends, family. It'd be a lot of people.

Tim Muehlhoff:

And imagine you guys were just living together?

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Again, you come and say, "Hey, we decided to split up." We'd be like, "Oh man Chris really? You guys seemed so good together." "I know but I don't think it's right." "well, okay. I know this is going to be hard but yeah you'll rebound."

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

I love the fact that if you call it quits on marriage you've got a community of individuals who are at your doorstep saying, "Hey, you said in front of us, you said this was for life."

Chris Grace:

Yep.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think there's something really powerful to that type of social glue.

Chris Grace:

Tim how do you answer this question then? If someone says, "Really, are you really telling me that just those studies alone. We just love each other. Just because we don't get this license. Just because we don't get this piece of paper does not change my love for this person. What else could change my commitment to this person? Look I love them. We're going to just do this. We're just afraid of ... We're actually doing the social responsible thing here by not having our children, if we have any, go through this thing of divorce. It's not that important. It just simply ... It's just a piece of paper." How do we then handle or deal or how would you answer that question?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Well I would go back to the air conditioner study. I would say what that person is in essence arguing is I can be group A and make a commitment to that person but not say it in front of anybody else, right? We're going to lower air conditioner usage, but I'm not saying it to anybody else. What I am saying is not only does the Bible seem to advocate the second group, where you do it in front of everybody. You do it in community, but culture has done it that way. That this is very much a symbolic act. I don't care if it's a ring or a piece of paper. What I do care about is that you are making this commitment to the most important individuals, your family, her family, God and that's where the stick-to-itiveness of it happens. That's what I would say.

 

By the way, studies have shown that the couples who live together but never mix with marriage. Can be ... We're not naïve enough, you and I are not naïve enough, to say well every couple living together is just miserable.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

No, I mean we could look at some couples living together and say, "You know I think ... It seems like you guys are doing well. You're resolving conflict. You're attending to each other." Here's the factor that I think we're missing is when you add to it traditional marriage, what happens is you didn't lose the inertia response and you didn't lose this idea, that you brought up, I can get out of relationship fairly easy.

 

I had a professor when I was doing grad school. He called it the exit strategy.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

He said, "The only way marriage is workable is if I have a back door to the marriage and you have a back door and we both know there's that back door and I choose not to use it." The Bible has a radical alternative to the exit strategy. Adam and Eve become one flesh.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

It's a coming together of the body, of the soul, of the spirit and saying we're in this for life and what God has brought together is going stay together.

 

Louis had this very interesting comment. He said, "A letter that has been sealed has been glued shut. Can you reopen it?" He said, "Yes, but there's going to be a lot of ripping. A lot of damage that's going to happen if you reopen what has been sealed." Again, we're not naïve enough to say that aren't any Biblical reasons for divorce. Maybe we do a podcast on that, but we're just simply saying God's original intention for marriage is that it be for a lifetime. That there's no exit strategy and that you're in it for life.

 

Again if any of our listeners are divorced, we're not ... Absolutely there's forgiveness. Absolutely there's an opportunity to start a marriage anew. There's an opportunity to enter into the marriage you're in right now and make that a lifetime commitment to another person. It's hard work, but I think it's worth it. Living together it seems like there's a neon sign over the back door at time and knowing it's there it's not as easy to turn off that sign as people think once you get married.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Yeah, it's a major trend today. We really to think about what leads to marriage when 2 people are living together. Interesting study done by Susan Brown at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She showed there's a greater chance cohabitating couples will marry if the man wants to do so. The women's feelings don't have much influence she found. The guy has got to be on board and if he's not on board the women doesn't have much.

 

Here's what happens Chris, I think, if that's true, what she just said.

Chris Grace:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tim Muehlhoff:

The woman then will pacify the man. Knowing that in many cases the man is the one who makes the final call if they're going to get married or not. Let's say this is even a woman who has already said to her mother, "Hey, mom don't worry. We're going to get married." Right? Eventually you're not going to be embarrassed by us living together. Now she gets into the habit of making sure he's happy, right? Because if he's the one who's going to pull the trigger then she has to make sure that he's happy because she does want to get married. That's a really bad habit of getting into. Where there's not honest discussion. There's not me talking about your weaknesses. There's not us really negotiating. Then what's going to happen, boy when you get married, oh my goodness. Can you imagine the conversations that couples going to have because now they're married.

Chris Grace:

Right. Tim all of these things can be a little discouraging for people maybe who have found themselves in this situation. With the best intentions they thought they were doing well. What advice would you give? I mean here's a couple now, they really do realize this isn't going the way ... Or maybe this isn't the right thing. They just found themselves in this situation and made some poor choices. Now they're there. What advice? What would you give? This couple is ... They want to do well. They want to do right. They don't like the affect and in fact maybe even they're saying, "I just want to follow God in this." What advice are you going to give to the couple?

Tim Muehlhoff:

Let me give advice both to the couple and to a person who may be having interactions with a couple who's living together. First, I don't think the answer ... Some couples will say this at a FamilyLife conference who are living together and they maybe even have a child. They'll say, "Okay, well I guess we're going to get married this weekend." My answer is no. I would not do that. I don't think you rush into a marriage. Let's say that couple's not good for each other. Let's take the child out of the equation. That child's going to be cared for no matter what. You're financially responsible for that child the rest of the lives of these 2 people regardless if you get married.

 

Listen, a divorce 3, 4, or 5 years down the road because you said, "Hey, what the heck. Let's get married because we're living together. We might as well just tie the knot." No. They need to go through pre-marital counseling. They need to find out if they're actually compatible to each other. It's going to do no good for that child. No good for those 2 if they get a divorce 3, 4, or 5 years down the road. A bad divorce isn't the answer to living together.

 

Let's make sure you're suited for each other and take all the time ... Does that mean one person moves out? Well that's not always economically feasible. I do think it then would be, following what the Bible has to say, I think they would abstain from sex. I think they would work on other forms of communication, not just the physical forms. They can talk and have date night and different stuff like that.

 

They're going to just say one thing to the ... If you may know a couple. Don't shame them. In other words I don't think every couple living together is basically just protesting traditional marriage. A lot of couples live together because financially they can't make it.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I think they need our compassion. We need to understand their back story. I wouldn't judge them as second class citizens.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I would affirm them. If it looks like a good relationship, I think I'd affirm that and nudge them towards what the Biblical prescription is and that is eventually a God honoring marriage.

Chris Grace:

I think that's great advice. We help, come alongside. That's what we're called to do anyway. We come alongside couples like this. For some that are in our lives, what I know and I realize is the best way to help them is to show that there is a way to do this. They are interested in following God of all things that it now is this new understanding and they're saying we want to do something different. These friends of ours, what we need to be able to do is to help them realize they can do this. It might take some strange and ironic steps. In other words, they might not be as compatible as they think they are. Just because they live together they need to get some counseling. They need to get some advice and they need to make some very hard commitments, right, and some decisions.

Tim Muehlhoff:

That's right.

Chris Grace:

There is hope for them. They can approach this in a way that can not only revolutionize their relationship but also their walk with God and be able to say, "Wow God we can do this. We can do something that is hard to do, but at the end if you're calling us to do this give us the strength and power to do this." and we can help them.

Tim Muehlhoff:

If you're a parent listening to this and you have a child who has kind of surprised you and moved in with somebody and they're now living together even though you knew you brought them up as best you could. You had family devotions. They attended church. They were in the youth group and now they've done this. Our only caution would be this. You still need to pursue them as your child. Yes, I'm sure they know that they've disappointed you. I'm sure if you've raised them in the church they understand that they're doing something that very easily could be deeply disapproved of by the parents. My thought is this, keep the communication climate open.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Work on it. Don't just rush in and say, "I will not set one foot in that apartment so long as you're living in sin."

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

I don't think that's going to be productive.

Chris Grace:

Yeah.

Tim Muehlhoff:

We speak the truth in love.

Chris Grace:

Right.

Tim Muehlhoff:

If a need arose with that couple. If somebody becomes sick let's say or you know financially they can't even have groceries. I think we need to make the hard decision that, listen, I'm not compromising what I think about living together, but there comes a time where you minister to people and it's through those loving actions that they then can hear what the Bible says about marriage and things like that. Let's lead with love, understanding ... They know where you're coming from.

Chris Grace:

I think that's great advice Tim. Thanks for reaching out that way. Hey listen, now this has been great. I think we need to continue this conversation and have some further talk and further discussion about what does this mean in this for our country, our culture, and the pressures that we're facing. Because it has an impact on dating. It has an impact on singles. It has an impact on how we view marriage and things are changing. Let's talk and continue on this topic.

Tim Muehlhoff:

Great Chris.

Chris Grace:

All right. Hey, thanks for joining us here on The Art of Relationships and we'll talk to you next time. Take care.


The Art of Relationships Podcast

The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships  — family, friends, co-workers and others.

 

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