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.
Searching for a Sanctuary that Does Not Exist
One of the most influential myths nourished by the culture of authenticity is that we will be “saved” or made complete when we meet the right-shaped soul, that perfectly complementary person who can fulfill all of our needs and desires. Like Morpheus in The Matrix we find ourselves asking, Is he or she “the one”?
Within the church we have tended to supercharge this fantasy by spiritualizing it, so that “the one” becomes the single human being that God has fashioned into perfect compatibility with all of our needs and longings. God is just waiting for the perfect moment to release this person into our lives, along with an associated relational epiphany just to make sure we don’t miss the moment.
The problem is that we are likely to experience a keen sense of frustration and despair as this paragon fails to materialize. Some personality trait or quirk always mars our idealized image. Despite this reality, modern authenticity encourages us to search for Dante’s Beatrice: the perfect soul who can lead us into the beatific vision of the heavenly realm. This search…locks us into a quest for a sanctuary that does not exist. Rather than focusing on the potential relationships standing in front of us, we keep our eyes focused on the elusive possibilities on the road ahead.
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.
When Infinite Choices Become Destructive
During my years working in corporate finance in London, a friend and colleague used to have vivid and often comic dreams, which he would recount over lunch at the office. One of the most poignant involved him cycling through central London on his daily commute. As he stopped at a red light, the crosswalk became a parade of every woman in the city.
The premise, he explained to us, was that he could choose any one of four million women for a relationship. The bind, of course, was that having so many options made any choice impossible. Sadly, this dream summed up my friend’s real-life vision of relationships. Although he had been in a long-term relationship and was already a father, his imagination was captured by that parade of infinite choice. The idea that there might be someone “better” out there, perhaps just around the next corner, put an impossible strain on his relationship. It eventually crumbled.