Cohabitation Nation: Sliding v. Deciding for Marriage

One of the most common concerns young people encounter as they begin to pursue adult relationships is the question of cohabitation.

Living together before, or instead of, marriage has not only become acceptable in the last 30 years, it has become the norm.  According to the US Census bureau, there was a 72% increase in unmarried couples living together between the years from 1990 to 2000.  Further, about 54% of women have, or will have, lived together with a boyfriend at some point in their lives.  One recent survey of high school seniors found that 64% of young men and 57% of young women agreed with the statement,  “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.”

All of this is to say that young adults are experiencing more pressure than ever to experiment with alternatives to marriage.  This, despite the wide body of research that says that cohabiting relationships are less stable and less satisfying than marriage, and actually increase the risk of divorce significantly if the cohabiting couple ever decides to pursue marriage.

This last point presents the best opportunity for parents and chastity educators to convince young people that remaining chaste until marriage is a better option.  New research from the University of Denver has discovered some of the reasons that cohabitation offers a poor preparation for marriage.


In the report, Sliding v. Deciding, Dr. Scott Stanley argues that there are significant differences in the process by which cohabiting and non-cohabiting couples enter into marriage. And this process, itself, plays a significant factor in determining the stability of the future marriage.

Non-cohabiting couples tend to proceed toward marriage in a conscious way.  Each stage of their evolving relationship represents a conscious choice that increases commitment on the one hand while intentionally limiting options on the other hand.  For instance, the decision to move from casual dating to exclusive dating, to engagement, to marriage, represents conscious, deliberate decisions to limit how much time I spend with others and how much of myself and my time that I give to my beloved.  Because I have consciously and deliberately chosen this path for myself, I am more satisfied with the result (because I don’t feel like it “just happened to me”  I actually chose it) and I am more invested in its future success.

By contrast, the cohabiting couple tends to “slide” toward marriage instead of deciding upon it.  Rather than proceeding through deliberate and public stages of increased commitment (exclusivity, to engagement, to marriage), cohabiting couples tend to get married because they’ve been together a while and other people just expect them to.  It’s seen “as the thing that happens next” as opposed to a conscious step that requires investment and commitment.

As a result, many cohabiting couples feel suffocated by the commitment and limitations marriage places upon them.  They didn’t consciously choose to limit their outside commitments.  They didn’t consciously choose to give more of themselves to each other.  It just “sort-of happened.”  As a result, they often feel trapped by the exclusivity and work that marriage requires.



I was recently working with a woman whose daughter was cohabiting with her boyfriend.  The couple had been together for about 5 years and living together for 2 of them.  My client had been encouraging her daughter to live apart from her boyfriend with no success.  In the last few months, the couple had been discussing the possibility of marriage, largely because their friends and family had been asking them about the possibility.   Fortunately, when the daughter approached their parish priest about getting married, he told her that he wouldn’t marry them unless she and her boyfriend agreed to live apart until the wedding.

The couple was upset, but agreed to comply with the pastor’s request and the daughter moved back in with her mother. A few weeks later, the daughter went to her boyfriend’s apartment to pick up some of her things and walked in on her boyfriend and another woman in flagrante.  In the argument the followed, the boyfriend argued that he had felt “trapped” into the marriage plans and he “didn’t know how he felt” about her and “needed time to think.”

The girlfriend was mystified.  “What does he mean he ‘needs time to think!’  We’ve been together for five years!”  What the young lady didn’t realize was that that young man said something very profound.  Yes, they had been together for five years, but during that entire time, he had never been required to actually be intentional and think about the relationship.  They had allowed their feelings to carry them along for the entire time.  Finally, presented with the opportunity to be conscious about their relationship, the young really didn’t know what he thought about her and committing to her for the rest of his life.

This scenario, though dramatic, perfectly illustrates the benefits of chastity.  Chastity requires a couple to be conscious and intentional about every step of their relationship—leading up to and even after marriage.  Most people think of chastity as merely refraining from inappropriate sexual contact.  But chastity really means exercising one’s capacity for loving the right person in the right time and in the right way. In other words, the beauty of chastity it that is forces one person to be conscious about his or her relationship to another.  And according to the most recent studies on the matter.  That makes all the difference.


Dr .Gregory Popcak is the author of over a dozen books including For Better…FOREVER! and Holy Sex!  He directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute which offers telephone counseling for Catholic individuals, couples and families.  Call 740-266-6461 or learn more online at