Cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States (and in Circle of Hope, too!). In the U.S. it climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. Most young adults today will, at some point, live with a romantic partner outside of marriage, and the majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married. We should consider this a new stage of development in marriage. It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.
Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not. Since 1960, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable. But even though there are very few negative social consequences for practicing these things without being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why they do this. But I do want to respond to the reality of it.
In the past most people married for economic, political and social reasons. Today they marry for love. Postmodern people seem to think relationships save them. The love songs say it. The script of New Girl taught it in a recent sitcom episode. Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement based on mutual attraction. Once religion provided the sacrament, then the law enforced the contract, and now personal preferences define the arrangement. The cultural change that made this happen was the same one that gave us science, technology, freedom, and capitalism: the Enlightenment. It made human reason the measure of all things, throwing off ancient rules if they fell short of new scientific reasoning. The greatest accomplishment of the Enlightenment was the creation of the United States of America.
Among the many things the scientific advances of the creative era called the Enlightenment spawned were the increase of divorce and cohabitation. The capacity to marry for love and participate in infidelity provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage.
Although the purpose of marriage has changed over time, the definition has not. Americans still define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, but many engage in infidelity and divorce. They want the connection, but they have slowly become accustomed to being totally individualistic. They choose to marry or exclusively cohabit and then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
As a result of all this confusion, family law has lost any moral basis. It is easier to get out of a marriage than a mortgage. This change in culture is made clear when one looks at court decisions. At the end of the 1800s, the Supreme Court referred to marriage as a “holy estate” and a “sacred obligation.” (Reynolds v. U.S. 1878). By 1972 the same court described marriage as “an association of two individuals” (Eisenstadt v. Baird. 1972). The Defense of Marriage Act (1996) attempted to remedy the Supreme Court’s philosophical direction that accelerated the change in society. But the adaptation of marriage has continued anyway and that law is being whittled away. The Obama administration selectively enforces it. As a society, people are still sorting this out.
For Christians who have not tuned their faith to the varying pitch of government, such as I am, the lack of federal protection for marriage merely serves to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith: not of sex, finances or even procreation, but of commitment. Couples do not need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But they do need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.
The question is: Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? The essence of marriage is not sex, or money, or even children: it is covenant. Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited? A new look at the spectrum of how people are changing marriage from covenant to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt.
- Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle!
- Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before the covenant is publicly committed – that would be something like embracing people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
- Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant, just secretly. Why would someone get married secretly?
When someone told me recently that they were about ready to have sex with their girlfriend, I said if he was going to get married, I’d marry them immediately, if he liked. We’re still sorting that out, too.