Cohabitation and the Definitely Maybe Relationship
The tension between autonomy and intimacy is most clearly evidenced in the trend toward cohabitation. Today, between 50 and 70 percent of American couples are cohabiting before or instead of marrying. Living together is now seen as the only mature way to begin an intimate relationship while preserving one’s personal integrity. This is the “definitely maybe” approach, whereby covenant is replaced with “wait and see” and “try before you buy.”
If intimate relationships were mortgages, we might call these sub-prime commitments. They are high-risk projects with little or no collateral security. Unfortunately, just like sub-prime mortgages, these relationships are designed to fail.
What is most startling about the trend of living together outside of marriage is that it is becoming increasingly popular, even though research shows overwhelmingly that cohabiting ultimately undermines relationships. Indeed, the evidence completely contradicts the popular belief that “testing” a relationship first is the best way to secure its future.
As a path to marriage, cohabitation is extremely unreliable, with only one in five cohabiting relationships ending in marriage, and these figures are getting worse over time. Even in those cases where living together does subsequently lead to marriage, cohabiting significantly increases the likelihood of an eventual divorce. Not surprisingly, serial cohabiters show radically higher rates of divorce in their subsequent marriages; women who cohabit multiple times before marrying divorce more than twice as frequently as those who live only with their future husband.
Devastated by Divorce
Recently I talked to a friend who had been a faithful pastor for more than two decades. After raising four kids with his wife of almost thirty years, he came home one day to the shock of his life. His wife had decided she didn’t want to be married anymore. An old high school flame had contacted her on Facebook. One thing led to another, and she had rekindled her relationship with the man “God had intended for her to marry in the first place.” After she left my friend, the elders at his church started talking. They agreed that in the wake of a scandal like that, he wasn’t fit to lead the church. He could resign or be terminated: his “choice.”
This poor, battered man sat in my office recounting his losses, and we cried together. He said, “I know God doesn’t owe me anything, but now I have nothing. After serving him my entire adult life, how could he allow me to end up divorced and unemployed? It’s just . . . just so unfair!” I couldn’t disagree. Where was the God he had served for all those years? Where is God when someone steals from your business, but then, when they get caught, they declare bankruptcy, so you’ll never get back the money they took?
“Divorce? Never, But Murder, Often”
The British actress Sybil Thorndike was married to Sir Lewis Casson another prolific actor. Their marriage was rather tumultuous at times, and after his death, she was once asked, “Did you ever think of divorce?” “Divorce? Never. But murder often!”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Divorced couples in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can take advantage of a new business in town. The company is called Freedom Rings: Jewelry for the Divorced. Founded by jeweler and divorcee Lynn Peters, the company makes custom jewelry out of wedding rings. Each customer at Freedom Rings pays a fee, and the ring-smashing ceremony begins–complete with champagne and music. Just before the smashing the M.C. says, “We will now release any remaining ties to your past by transforming your ring–which represents the past–into a token of your new beginning. Now take the hammer. Stop for a moment to consider the transformation that is about to begin your new life. Ready? With this swing let freedom ring!”
She then uses a four-pound sledgehammer to whack her emblem of love and fidelity into a shapeless piece of metal. And the ceremony ends. The fact that women are pounding their wedding rings into pendants and men are grinding theirs into golf ball markers doesn’t surprise me. We’ve all heard the divorce statistics. But let’s focus on the women for a moment: How many American women stop short of divorce, but would love to make a clean break from their marriage if it were convenient? How many Christian women feel the same way?
Brian Peterson, New Man, October, 1994
The (Seeming) End of the Line
A few years ago Christian friends of ours, after several years of marriage, came to see Esther and me to explain that their relationship had reached an impasse and that they could see no alternative but to end it. After a downward spiral of conflict and loss of trust, they struggled to have a civil conversation with each other and had begun to form romantic attachments with other people.
They were surprised when we said that they had simply reached a normal stage in every marriage, the stage where going on together seems impossible and unthinkable, where you wonder what you saw in each other in the first place. This was a stage that we had reached early on in our own marriage and had repeated several times since. If happiness or emotional resonance had been our main interpretive dials for navigating our relationship, we would have split up many times.
Over the following weeks, we worked through some practical ways in which our friends could turn around the destructive dynamics that had taken hold in their relationship and, in their place, foster trust, intimacy, and commitment to each other. Many years later, their marriage is on a solid footing, and they are thriving with a family. The tragedy is that so many Christian marriages never recover from the same downward spiral.
We in the church have not spoken and ministered effectively into our culture’s prioritization of authenticity above all else in matters of sexuality and relationships. When a marriage ceases to make us happy or the traveling becomes heavy going, we have no other master story to navigate us through the storm.
So we take this as a sign that it simply “wasn’t meant to be”—that we are not among the lucky ones when it comes to marriage. Christian tradition emphasizes courage and perseverance in the face of suffering, but even within the church, seeking happiness and avoiding emotional pain have become our highest virtues.
What’s Wrong about the 50% Divorce Statistic
For years we’ve all heard the grim statistic claiming that 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce, but that bleak prognosis doesn’t apply to most couples getting married today or even most of those who married in the last few decades. Th truth about marriage is that divorce is getting less common.
Divorce rates have dropped sharply since peaking in the late 1970s, for a variety of reasons. In many ways, the marital bond is stronger and better than it ever has been…marrying before the age of twenty-five and dropping out of college predicted a whopping 51 percent divorce rate. What happened to couples who delayed marriage until after completing college and after the age of twenty-five? After twenty years of marriage, only 19 percent of them had divorced.