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To Shack Up or Shackle Down, That Is The Question…

February 26, 2014


Timothy Kleiser:  “Marriage is like a cage; one sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out.”

This pessimistic view of marriage—voiced by Montaigne, the French philosopher—is a view that is commonly held today. In our society that worships individuality, marriage is increasingly regarded as a cage that imposes unwanted limits on personal freedom.

As a result, more and more couples are delaying marriage (or foregoing it entirely) and instead choosing to cohabitate, or “shack up” as it’s commonly known.

A University of Virginia study indicates that, since 1970, the number of cohabiting couples in the United States has increased by more than fifteen hundred percent. Today, cohabitation precedes more than sixty percent of all marriages compared to almost none fifty years ago. And in a survey of twenty-somethings, nearly half stated that cohabitation should be a prerequisite for marriage, according to the New York Times.

The meteoric rise and acceptance of cohabitation as a viable alternative or prelude to marriage is simply astonishing. So how did it come to this?

Cohabitation Is Ultimately About Freedom

In her book, Not Just Roommates, Elizabeth Pleck—an advocate of cohabitation—studies the history of cohabitation and concludes that it is a direct result of the liberalism and moral revolutions of the 1960s (e.g., sexual, civil rights, youth, feminist, legal, contraceptive). With an emphasis on the freedom of the individual and the oppressiveness of institutions, these social revolutions turned marriage into an optional way of life. Pleck writes, “Marriage is no longer perceived as necessary for sex, companionship, child-rearing, respect, or moving up the job ladder at work.”

Far from being necessary, marriage is now often seen as a cage that stifles personal freedom, curtails economic opportunity, and suppresses moral autonomy. As Andrew Sullivan writes in Virtually Normal , “Marriage of all institutions is to liberationists a form of imprisonment.”

At the same time, there are many who choose to cohabitate not because they disregard marriage, but because they desire marriage. Glenn Stanton observes this irony in his book, The Ring Makes All the Difference.

Stanton writes, “Gen Xers, and those coming after them, saw their parents divorce in record numbers. And guess what? Unlike what so many of their parents were told, they didn’t see this as a powerful, healthy, liberating event.”

These people know the pain of divorce and desperately desire successful marriages. Cohabitation, they believe, provides a way to for them to “test drive” a possible marriage and to more easily exit the relationship if they so choose.

But whether one disregards marriage or greatly desires it, the motivation for cohabitation is almost universally the same—individual freedom.

In a study that spanned ten modern countries, researchers found that a high view of freedom and a low level of trust is a unifying theme of cohabitation. Couples think that, by “shacking up”, they can experience some key benefits of marriage without being “shackled down” by many of the entangling commitments that marriage involves.

Cohabitation Hurts More Than It Helps

There’s no doubt that cohabitation clearly affords a certain degree of independence, but does it really provide the level of freedom that we all deeply desire? According to a growing body of research, the answer is a resounding “no.” Cohabitation actually hinders our freedom and hurts our health.

For example, a recent study conducted by psychologist James Coan examined and compared the brains of cohabiting couples and married couples. They found that married people overwhelming respond better to stressful situations.

Coan comments, “There’s a pretty strong and predictable regulation effect in the married couples and no regulation at all in the cohabiting couples. None. Zero.”

Perhaps this ability to handle stress is one reason why married people are significantly less likely to have major health issues such as cancer and heart disease. And married people enjoy better overall health in nearly every measure as compared to those who are not married, as Hui Liu explains in the Journal of Marriage and Family

Not only are mental and physical health greatly affected by cohabitation, but also relational health. “Cohabiting relationships tend to be characterized by less commitment, less sexual fidelity, more domestic violence, more instability, and more insecurity, compared to married relationships,” according to sociologist Brad Wilcox.

Overall, research consistently finds that “couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages—and more likely to divorce.” In fact, marriages preceded by cohabitation are 65 percent more likely to end in divorce.

The Cohabitation Effect

This “cohabitation effect,” as it is widely known, is so well attested that researchers are no longer asking whether cohabitation hurts people, but why it does.

According to Coan, the difference lies in one’s ability to trust their partner. Marriage “communicates to your partner commitment, really powerful, strong commitment, the kind of commitment that is hard to get out of. That’s what your brain is looking for.”

But if a person says, “’We’re just living together, we’re only living together’ it means you haven’t really committed. It means that you’re explicitly maintaining a little bit of emotional distance. You’re not locked in.”

Scott Stanley describes this difference as “sliding vs. deciding.” Whereas married couples make a definite decision to commit to one another for life, cohabiting couples usually “slide” into the cohabiting relationship for unspecified reasons and for an unspecified amount of time.

“Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean,” says Meg Jay of the New York Times.

Cohabitation Provides Less Freedom—Not More

It’s true that cohabitation might provide individuals with a greater level of independence, but not freedom. This is because independence and freedom—like cohabitation and marriage—are fundamentally and qualitatively different concepts.

Whereas independence is about choice, freedom is about ability.

To understand this distinction, consider the analogy of a kite and string. Without a string, a kite may be independent but it will be tossed aimlessly by the wind and soon come crashing down. However, if the kite is attached to a string, it is no longer independent but it now has the ability (freedom) to do what it is designed to do—fly!

Similarly, cohabitation might preserve a person’s independence/choice, but it doesn’t give a person the freedom/ability to experience life and love as it could be—as it was designed by God to be.

Freedom Found in God’s Design

In God’s sovereignty and goodness, He designed covenantal marriage to be the context for human flourishing. And wherever God’s design for marriage is not honored, human flourishing is replaced with pain and disappointment, as in the case of cohabitation.

Only biblical marriage with its explicit trust and lifelong devotion provides the context necessary for a couple to flourish and experience genuine freedom—the freedom to truly live, to deeply love, and to fully unite themselves to each other.

This is true because marriage is about sharing a lasting love—not a temporary lease. It’s about a covenant—not convenience. It’s about establishing permanence—not exploring possibilities.

Ultimately, Christians know that marriage is not a shackle, but a string that gives us the freedom to fly—to live and love as we were designed.



Timothy Kleiser is a student and a staff member at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Jenna, have been married for three years and are active members at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow Timothy on Twitter here: @timothy_kleiser [ ]


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