Sean McDowell | July 14, 2016

Three Reasons Cohabitation Doesn’t Work

Three Reasons Cohabitation Doesn’t Work

Cohabitation is on the rise. Even though statistics show people who marry without cohabiting first are less likely to have failed marriages[i], more and more people are living together before they “tie the knot.” In fact, many are living together without ever getting married. Some even consider it the new normal.[ii] Despite the popularity of this growing living arrangement, there are at least three reasons cohabitation fails to provide the best preparation for a lasting, committed relationship.

1. Men and women tend to view cohabitation differently. Differing expectations in a relationship is a recipe for failure. Unless there is clarification of the relationship (which necessarily happens in marriage, but often doesn’t happen in cohabitation), men and women often view living together differently. As a whole, men tend to view cohabitation as a step to see if they will consider deeper commitment. And since they typically get sex out of the arrangement, many are in no rush for marriage. On the other hand, women often view cohabitation as a step towards commitment. In other words, women tend to consider living together as an act of commitment, whereas men tend to consider living together as a trial run to see if they will consider committing to the relationship. Differing expectations lead to inevitable conflict.

2. Cohabitation is not a genuine simulation of marriage. Students often tell me that living together offers them the chance to see if marriage will work. In other words, cohabiting allows people to see if they are compatible with another person, which helps decide if getting married is a good idea. One problem with this approach, however, is that the very thing that makes marriage work—an unconditional commitment to love someone “until death do us apart”—is absent in cohabitation. And the lack of this unconditional commitment changes everything about the dynamic of the relationship. Think how differently you might resolve conflict if you knew your spouse was committed to you no matter what, versus thinking he or she may walk out the door when things get difficult. As my friend Kerby Anderson once said, marriage is like being in a locked room and throwing the key out the window (“we’re in this together and we will find a way to make it work”). On the other hand, living together is like being in a locked room but keeping the key in your pocket (“I just might leave if things get tough”). Again, the commitment of marriage changes everything.

3. Living together blinds people to their incompatibility. When people live together, they think they are getting a sense of whether they are compatible or not. After all, you get to see things about the other person—such as how they look in the morning, or whether they put the cap on the toothpaste—that you wouldn’t know living apart. The problem with this argument, however, is that it misses the bigger point, namely, that living together actually makes people less objective about their potential mate. People living together almost inevitably have sex. As a result, their bodies are flooded with “bonding chemicals,” such as oxytocin. This chemical is released during sexual activity and creates a desire for further connection. Oxytocin helps people stay faithful to each other, to overlook imperfections, and to feel a sense of bonding with their partner. But when people are sexually active in cohabitation, it creates the feeling that they love each other, and because of how close they are physically and biochemically, people are less likely to be objective about character issues in their potential spouse. They will often excuse misbehavior because they feel in love. Thus, ironically, not living together and not being sexually active actually helps dating couples decide more objectively whether marriage is a good fit or not.

If you want a lasting, intimate, and stable relationship, then not living together and avoiding sexual activity before marriage are critical ingredients. Bruce Wydick concludes,

The simple act of standing in front of one’s friends and family and God and promising to be faithful partners ‘till death do us part’ is not a trite relic of Christendom. It is wisdom, beauty, and love rolled into a single sacred institution that protects, stabilizes, and nurtures a lifelong relationship.”[iii]

There is not only solid Scriptural precedent for the traditional view of sex and marriage, but good evidence and reason to support it as well.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[i] Bruce Wydick, “Why Married Sex is Social Justice” Christianity Today (July/August 2016), 75:

[ii] Jonel Aleccia, “The New Normal: Cohabitation on the rise, study finds,” NBC News (April 4, 2013):

[iii] Wydick, 75.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: