Shacking up


The web is buzzing about an opinion article published by The New York Times last Saturday. "The Downside to Cohabitating Before Marriage" has been one of the most emailed and among the most viewed articles on the Times' website this week, although it contains nothing new or groundbreaking. It merely confirms what most know or suspect: Living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce.

Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist and author, writes about a client she calls "Jennifer." The client and her live-in boyfriend eventually married, but when Jennifer was in therapy with Jay, divorce was on her mind. During cohabitation-a euphemism for "shacking up"-Jennifer said she felt like she was on a "multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife." They'd bought furniture together and had the same friends. In their 20s when they moved in together, they married in their 30s seemingly by default. How romantic.

Jay notes that women and men tend to see shacking up differently. You don't say?

"Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on … their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse."

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Gender asymmetry-Adam and Eve certainly learned something about that after the Fall, didn't they? No offense to the men in the audience, but honestly, is anyone surprised that men tend to view living together without the benefit of marriage as a way to postpone marriage? Or that women, with their romantic notions, tend to view living together as a sort of marriage gamble, or a foot in the door, so to speak?

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio host and marriage and family therapist, gets irritated when women call in to her program to complain that their shack-up boyfriends are seeing other women or aren't treating them well. Schlessinger asks: Why shouldn't he see other women? There is no commitment. The caller is just the "shack-up honey," an "unpaid whore." Schlessinger speaks roughly to make a point: Two people living and sleeping together outside marriage should not expect to be treated as a wife or a husband. There are no vows to be faithful, to honor, or to cherish.

What really ticks off people like Schlessinger (and me) is when unmarried couples living together outside marriage give birth or bring previous children into these homes. According to the National Marriage Project, divorce is no longer the greatest threat to family stability and child well-being. Cohabitation is "the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children's family lives." Children in cohabiting homes are much more likely to suffer abuse than children in intact, married families or single-parent families.

Adults can play house, but children need intact homes and a mother and father who love them.

La Shawn Barber
La Shawn Barber

La Shawn writes about culture, faith, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Christian Research Journal, Christianity Today, the Washington Examiner, and other publications


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