Separate Beds Until You Wed: Rebooting Views On Cohabitation

Cohabitating is perfectly normal in today’s society. Yet “perfect” is not always what it seems and “normal” may not always be best.

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, a 2002 survey of 13,000 respondents, 61 percent of women in their late 30s had cohabitated at some point in their lives, and 28 percent of couples cohabitated before marriage. Some estimate that two-thirds of today’s couples cohabitate. In popular culture, most sexual relationships begin shortly after a man and woman meet, and marriage is always preceded by cohabitation, as though it is a prerequisite. “From the perspective of many young adults, marrying without living together first seems quite foolish,” claims Professor Pamela J. Smock, a researcher at the Population Studies Center.

All of this desperately needs a reboot in 2012 and beyond.

Sixty years ago, cohabitation was universally frowned upon. Now, choosing not to cohabitate is abnormal. But what is “normal” is not always beneficial. Sure, it’s normal for Americans to overeat, not to exercise, and to live sedentary lifestyles. That’s why our country has a severe problem with ever-expanding obesity (pun intended). If Americans strove to be “abnormal,” we’d have much better health and save billions on healthcare costs.

That said, Pamela Smock also claims the survey data demonstrates that “there is not a negative effect of cohabitation on marriages, plain and simple.” However, a closer look reveals that those who live together after planning to marry and/or becoming engaged have roughly the same chance of divorce as those who do not cohabitate; conversely, those without concrete plans to marry have a higher chance of divorce. The couple’s level of commitment—not whether they live together before marriage—seems to be the most important determinant of the relationship’s long-term viability.

Emphasis on “long-term viability.” The survey found that about one-third of cohabitating and non-cohabitating couples had divorced within 10 years of marriage. I’d wager that the divorce rate would increase among cohabitating couples if their representation in the survey (a mere 23% of all respondents) also increased. As we all know, 50% of contemporary marriages end in divorce. Committed or not, American relationships are not faring very well on the whole.

What benefits might result if we chose to be “abnormal” and practice abstinence and live separately prior to marriage? How much stronger could our marriage commitments become? How much longer could our unions last, and how satisfying could they be?

Religious readers should be shaking their heads in agreement by now, but I presume many skeptics are still scoffing. I understand. I was once a skeptic myself.

I was once convinced that living together would provide a perfect “trial run” prior to marriage. My religious wife, on the other hand, strongly believed we should remain in separate homes and beds until our wedding night. After three-plus years of marriage, I can honestly say that she was right. As usual.

Our wedding day wasn’t just another day with the addition of some fancy clothes and copious amounts of cake. It marked a true rite of passage into a mysterious world of love and oneness we could never have experienced if we’d left for the wedding ceremony from our shared apartment and returned to the full dishwasher we used the night before. Learning to live together wasn’t smooth or easy, but it was new and exciting and drew us closer together in myriad visible and invisible ways. I wish our experience and its blessings on every couple.

This is not to say that a relationship can’t thrive if the parties cohabitate. I also don’t claim that not cohabitating will necessarily lead to a stronger relationship. Dating and marriage are much more complicated than that—they require mutual love, affection, respect, service, time, work, and so many other inputs. 

Commitment might be the most important input. Commitment to love even when you don’t feel it. Commitment to show respect when it’s not deserved. Commitment to make sacrifices. The kind of commitment that marriage should represent.

For all these reasons, I believe we ought to reconsider the “norm” in supposedly “committed” relationships. After all, if a couple is really committed to each other, then can’t they wait to share a bed and a home?

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.

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