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Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 180–191 

Without Rings or Strings: Engaging Cohabitation in the Church

Irma Fast Dueck

When my husband and I were married thirty-two years ago, our courtship went something like this: We met at a Mennonite college, we dated for a requisite amount of time and then at a specific moment in time after a long walk in the woods, we declared our love to each other and decided to spend our lives together in marriage. I was twenty-one years old. After a week of getting accustomed to the idea of getting married, we announced to our parents that we were engaged.

There are good reasons for Christians to be concerned about the current practice of cohabitation.

Our parents threw us a party to celebrate our engagement and we began, together with our families, to make plans for a wedding and a married life together. During the time of our engagement, relatives and friends threw us several wedding showers so that we could begin to gather the things we needed to start a household together (measuring cups, Tupperware containers, favorite recipes from the relatives collected into a book, towels for our bathroom, sheets and pillow cases, and a few tools thrown in for good measure). Our wedding took place in my home church, and {181} my father married us amongst an assortment of church people, friends, and family. Normally the reception would have been in the church basement but our families hosted a reception at a nearby Mennonite camp where I had been living at the time. A short program followed the meal with a few sly references to having children and what we might be doing in our hotel later that evening.

This pattern of dating, engagement, and wedding was predictable and familiar in the Anabaptist-Mennonite community which formed us. Virtually everyone we knew entered marriage this way, with only slight variations. It was a pattern observable both in Christian communities and in the surrounding “secular” world. Very few people broke with the rubric. When I served as a pastor over thirty years ago, on the rare occasion when a couple asking to be married in the church was already living together, I would present the situation to the congregation’s Board of Deacons. They would then discern what conditions there might be to my participation in the wedding ceremony. One condition would likely be that the couple should live apart until the wedding day. Couples cohabitating before marriage were exceptions to the rule, and if such a case presented itself the normal marriage protocols were revisited.

Today, the pathway to marriage is changing. Living together has in many ways become culturally normative, and it may or may not eventually lead to marriage. There is much less social stigma about cohabitation, making it a very real option for many couples, Christian and non-Christian alike. And the church is left to discern how it will respond to this contemporary reality. This paper will begin with a descriptive account of the contemporary practice of cohabitation, followed by a theological and pastoral reflection on how the church might engage it.


A cohabiting couple is “a co-resident man and woman, living together within a sexual union, without that union having been formalised by a legal marriage.” 1 To simply categorize cohabitation as an overt form of fornication (“living in sin”) is to miss the fact that cohabitation is not a uniform phenomenon and this becomes obvious as soon as one encounters real people who are cohabiting. Some commonly described categories of cohabitation are:

Casual A couple drifts into living together. Usually they are already having regular sex, which they see as a normal part of “going out together.” In these relationships partners move in together for convenience or financial reasons, without thinking much about the future. {182}
Cautious The partners are more serious about a future relationship together. They generally believe in marriage and are tentatively moving towards it, but are not yet fully committed to each other. Often these couples consider cohabitation a “trial marriage,” hoping it will help them decide whether they are “right for each other.”
Committed The couple has decided to stay together, and they hope it will be for life. They expect to get married, but have not done so for reasons such as the cost of a wedding, lack of urgency, employment, or a still pending divorce.
Alternative These couples do not “believe” in marriage and, for cultural or philosophical reasons, view it as outmoded. They are sometimes committed but not conventional. They do not think that formal marriage would make any positive difference to their relationship.

Not all cohabitation is the same, so it may be helpful to distinguish prenuptial cohabitation (those in the “committed” and “cautious” categories) from non-nuptial cohabitation (“casual” and “alternative” categories). While researchers frequently cite a correlation between cohabitation and divorce rates, a simplistic “cause and effect” interpretation does not adequately capture the nuances that differentiate prenuptial and non-nuptial cohabitation. It has been noted by numerous studies that cohabiters with plans to marry report no significant difference in the quality of their relationship than married people. The same researchers who report lower relationship quality within cohabiting relationships frequently exclude those intending to marry. 2 Brown and Booth claim that cohabiters with marriage plans are involved in unions not necessarily qualitatively different from those in marriage relationships. 3 Linda Waite insists that “all cohabiting relationships are not equal; those on their way to the altar look and act like already-married couples in most ways and those with no plans to marry look and act very different.” 4

What is clear is that the practice of cohabitation is a growing phenomenon. Cohabitation has become so common that many consider it odd not to live with a partner before marriage. Cohabitation has increased by nearly 900 percent in the last fifty years. 5 Right now in the United States, statistics tells us that are there are more couples cohabitating than are married. 6 A recent study done by the Barna Group found that most American adults believe cohabitation is generally a good idea. Two thirds of adults either strongly or somewhat agreed that it’s a good idea to live with one’s significant other before getting married, compared to one-third who either strongly or somewhat disagreed. 7 In Canada, between 2006 and 2011, the number of common-law couples {183} rose 13.9 percent, more than four times the 3.1 percent increase for married couples. 8

Increasingly cohabitation is the most common route into marriage. This does not mean that the majority of cohabiting relationships lead to marriage. Popenoe and Whitehead claim that only 53 percent of first cohabiting unions result in marriage and the percentage of couples who marry their second and third cohabitation partners is much lower, with at least 10 to 30 percent of them never intending to marry. 9 Adrian Thatcher’s assessment is that “cohabiters are more likely to return to singleness [than] to enter marriage.” 10 In any particular year there are more cohabitations than marriages. Clearly cohabitation is replacing marriage as the first living-together union for today’s young adults.


While couples may choose to move in together for many reasons, what follows are a few common explanations.

Increased nonmarital sexual activity

With the advent of effective contraceptive technologies and increasing sexual permissiveness, growing numbers of people are engaging in nonmarital sexual activity. In our cultural milieu, sexual activity is one of the taken-for-granted freedoms and pleasures of being young and single. It is not uncommon for both men and women to regard casual sex as an expected part of the dating scene. Only a few take a moral stand against it. Simply put, the argument goes: If we’re sexually active anyways, why not just move in together? For these, the only “disadvantage” to moving in (if it would be called that) is that the couple’s sexual activity becomes public knowledge.

Increasing gap between puberty and marrying age

In both the United States and Canada, the gap between puberty and marrying age is increasing. Thirty or more years ago, it was common to get married around the age of twenty-one. Today, people are marrying at a much older age. As one young adult once said, “ ‘True love waits’ was fine when I was a teenager, but can it wait until I’m thirty or more?”

Attitudes to marriage

In a comprehensive study done by the National Marriage Project (Rutgers University), researchers found an erosion of confidence in the stability of marriage. Many participants in the study witnessed or experienced divorce in their families and among their friends, making them skeptical or afraid of making their own marriage commitments. Researchers found that while many young women and men idealize marriage, at the same time they see marriage as hard and the probability {184} of its failure as high. In addition, many young men and women think marriage is economically risky, also due to the prevalence of divorce. 11

Living together as a “test-drive”

Due to the perceived fragility of marriage, couples may choose to live together for cautionary reasons. Both women and men favor living together as a way of gathering vital information about a partner’s character, fidelity, and compatibility. They see cohabitation as a way of testing their long-term compatibility. It has become the default way to test the relationship before making any final commitments. 12

The reasons why couples move in together are not always based on reality. For example, the logic that cohabitation can function as a “test-drive” of a long-term relationship might suggest that couples who have lived together before marriage will have better marriages. However, there is no evidence to support this belief, but some evidence that cohabiting before marriage increases the likelihood of divorce, particularly for those who have cohabited multiple times. 13 If the “test-drive” logic is extended, it would follow that divorce rates would be decreasing with all the “premarriage testing” taking place. There is no evidence, however, that this is happening.


It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully engage the research around the effects of cohabitation. Many of the effects are negative, including the following commonly described by researchers:

  • Cohabiting couples experience more depression, more sexual activity outside of the relationship, less sexual satisfaction, more difficulty in communication and problem solving, and worse relationships with parents than their married counterparts. 14
  • Risks of physical abuse, sexual abuse and murder are higher for individuals in cohabiting relationships. 15
  • The increase in cohabitation has contributed directly to the increase in the number of children living with a single parent. 16
  • Cohabiters with children are very likely to split up. 17
  • Children raised by cohabiting couples are likely to be poorer than children raised by married parents. 18
  • People who live together before they marry may be more likely to divorce than people who do not. 19 (But recall that there is not a noticeable difference between the divorce rates of those who cohabit with the intention of marriage [“prenuptial” cohabitation] and their married counterparts.) 20 {185}

Simply put, statistical evidence contradicts the logic of cohabitation. Interestingly there appears to be a concurrence between theological and secular opinion about cohabitation; the traditional position of the church against cohabitation appears to be buttressed by statistics from the social sciences. Consider that the final recommendations of the National Marriage Project (a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and interdisciplinary initiative located at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey), after considerable significant research on cohabitation, encouraged couples to avoid cohabitation, not on religious grounds, but on broad health grounds. Young adults were advised:

  • To consider not living together at all before marriage. Cohabitation appears not to be helpful and may even be harmful as a try-out marriage.
  • Not to make a habit of cohabiting. There are risks in multiple living-together experiences, relating both to personal wellbeing and the chances of establishing strong lifelong partnerships.
  • To limit cohabitation to the shortest possible period of time. The longer one lives together with a partner, the more likely a low-commitment ethic of cohabitation will take hold.
  • Not to cohabit if children are involved. Cohabiting parents break up at a higher rate than married parents, and the effects of a breakup can be devastating and often long lasting. 21


Cohabitation is a new cultural norm which the church will need to contend with. There are good reasons for Christians to be concerned about the current practice of cohabitation including its relationship to the practice of marriage and how heavily implicated cohabitation is in separating parenthood from marriage. Christians should also be concerned about the social correlations of cohabitation and domestic abuse which is frequently more common in cohabiting relationships.

The practice of cohabitation is a complex reality. However, marriage too is multilayered: marriage is personal and communal, psychological and sociological, theological and sacramental, emotional and physical, philosophical and practical, to name just a few of the dynamics. This makes speaking about marriage challenging but it is also difficult to reflect on because it is so common and such a remarkably ordinary part of human life. The risk is to over simplify and critique cohabitation with a kind of “cause and effect” analysis that reduces cohabitation to an “enemy” of Christian marriage and family without thoroughly engaging the complex social context which has accelerated the practice. This context would include contemporary understandings of marriage which {186} have been implicated in the practice of cohabitation. What follows are some considerations Christians should pay attention to as they engage the reality of cohabitation. This is in no way a defense of the practice of cohabitation or even a justification for it. It would be difficult to defend cohabitation from a biblical or theological perspective. However, whenever there is a disconnect between the traditional teachings of the church and the convictions and practices of its members, there is good reason to think about what the church should do to bridge the gap. What are the questions the church should be asking? What should guide the church as it discerns the issues connected to practices of cohabitation?

First, it is important to remember that the Christian understanding of marriage is not static and has always been influenced by its social and cultural context. Christians throughout history have had to discern courtship and marriage practices within particular contexts, and these have clearly impacted marriage practices. The biblical teaching on marriage should be seen in the context of the Near Eastern cultures with which the people of the Bible had intimate links, specifically the Mesopotamian, Syrian, and Canaanite cultures in the Old Testament and Hebrew, Roman, and Greek cultures in the New Testament. We know that Hebrews and Christians both had syncretistic tendencies, linking their beliefs to the cultural practices of the peoples who surrounded them. For example, practices of polygamy and concubinage in the Old Testament were influenced by contact with neighboring cultures, but they would create significant discomfort in our cultural context, as would the notion of wives being the property of their fathers and husbands (assumed in both testaments). At the same time, it should be recognized how frequently early Judeo-Christian understandings of marriage and family were radical, if not subversive of contemporary marriage practices.

Increasingly theologians are recognizing how Christian notions of the “traditional family” closely resemble the bourgeois, or middle-class family that rose to dominance in the nineteenth century, not coincidentally alongside capitalism and the industrial revolution, which linked family to free enterprise. 22 The capitalist narrative has shaped a separated and autonomous understanding of marriage and family which we know as the “nuclear” family. It is nuclear not just in referring to the family unit as consisting of parents and children but also in its inward orientation. David Matzko McCarthy writes,

Two people who join together in marriage carve out a distinct sphere of life; distinct not only from other families but also from social and economic structures. Husband and wife set up a home, and home, as an ideal of intimacy and love, stands apart from {187} economic judgements or concerns for profit and productivity. Family is, rather, sustained internally by emotional investment. 23

This closed conception of marriage and family has in many ways been co-opted by the church, which is strange in doing little to open “a door to the sacred.” The practices of the nuclear family are isolated from the social body of the church, which reduces the church’s role to sustaining and enabling the family unit.

The cultural context of the church has frequently influenced the practice of marriage. And in every generation and culture the church must discern and read the biblical story anew in light of that context, without simply mimicking the biblical or Christian forebears. Now too, the church will need to discern how it will engage the current sexual-cultural milieu, including the pervasive practice of cohabitation, which will inevitably impact contemporary practices of courtship and marriage. At the same time, we should remember that the God of the Scriptures is indeed a God who deigns to enter human history to establish a relationship with humankind, who is the living and dynamic source and sustainer of all life, and who will continue to sustain the church in days to come.

Secondly, contemporary practices of cohabitation present an opportunity for Christians to reflect honestly about their understandings of sexuality, marriage, family, and singleness. On a cursory reading of the Christian literature on cohabitation, the most common concern is the impact of cohabitation on Christian understandings of marriage, and there is good reason to fear that the practice of living together threatens the Christian ideal of marriage. At the same time, cohabitation may provide a much-needed opportunity to reexamine the Christian marriage “ideal.” More recently, a number of theologians have raised the question whether current Christian understandings glorify marriage and family to the point where they have become our idols. 24 The risk of idolizing family and kinship relationships is something Jesus knew all too well, and his own singleness could be interpreted as a form of resistance. 25 This idealized view of the “traditional family” is not a family that is lifted from the biblical patriarchal perspective or from the New Testament but is far more a model rooted in nineteenth-century, industrialized Europe and North America.

This begs the questions: What makes marriage Christian? What distinguishes the practice of marriage from cohabitation? How can Christian marriage theology and practice be strengthened so that it doesn’t simply become another version of cohabitation? Christians have long believed there is in fact something Christian about marriage, something that reveals important features of the Trinitarian God. For this reason, {188} many Christians consider marriage a sacrament, a distinct avenue of insight into God’s reality.

The interesting thing about the story of Israelites as told in the Old Testament is that Israel was not chosen and rescued from Egyptian slavery because of its merit or great numbers. Instead, “it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Deut 7:7–11). Throughout its history, Israel came to know the Creator God, the One and sovereign Lord, and one of the most important characteristics they encountered was God’s unyielding fidelity and unwavering grace. “Your steadfast love, O lord, extends to the heavens,” proclaims the Psalmist, “your faithfulness to the clouds” (Ps 36:5). The practice of marriage reflected God’s fidelity to Israel and for this reason Israelites came to practice monogamous marriage. For the Israelites, marriage was to reflect who they understood God to be and later to reflect the character of Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, the language of “covenant” is frequently used to describe Christian marriage, for it is language which parallels the relationship of God with God’s people. Of course, this is not to suggest that only marriage reveals God and therefore everyone should be married; as alluded to earlier, the New Testament presents a very positive view of singleness as well, especially considering the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul.

Perhaps the feature that most distinguishes marriage from cohabitation is community. At its best, marriage is a community-building act from the very beginning while cohabitation is not. To marry is to celebrate a love and commitment publicly, in the presence of family and friends and church. Marriage begins in the context of a community and acknowledges one’s part in the larger human family. It recognizes that one’s life is more than one’s own, that one’s actions affect more than oneself. It is to proclaim that marriage is more than a private affair between two people, that it finds its meaning in the context of a broader community, the church, the body of Christ. Living together seems to imply that the central relationship of one’s life is nobody’s business but one’s own. To live together is a decision reached privately and put into motion alone. No community blesses or celebrates it. And sadly, what the community does not bless, it does not feel responsible for. However, when marriage too is understood as primarily a private affair, an autonomous decision between two individuals, when the communal dimensions of marriage are not recognized or practiced, marriage risks becoming simply another version of cohabitation. Privacy, individualism, and autonomy loom large in our culture, and the church is left to discern {189} how it might strengthen communal notions of marriage but also how the church community can find its way into the commitments of cohabiting couples to bring them into marriage.

Finally, the current practices of cohabitation have many implications for ministry. A consistent complaint I hear from university students is that the opportunities they have in church to talk about sexuality, marriage, and ethical issues such as cohabitation are limited. As the gap between puberty and marriage increases, the need for ongoing dialogue and support becomes critical. People need pastoral care as they increasingly cope with negative experiences of marriage, which lead many to suspect and fear the institution.

Perhaps most significant is the need for the church to remain in relationship with those who are currently cohabiting. Sadly, though understandably, when a Christian couple chooses to cohabit, they recognize their divergence from the traditional teachings of the church, which most likely will result in their leaving. Cohabitation, unlike hidden sexual relationships, is public behavior and elicits disapproval from many Christians. 26 The question remains: How can the church hold fast to the significance of marriage and at the same time accept that cohabitation is, for many people, a step along the way towards marriage. How can the church remain in relationship with those who are currently living together?

Christian theology is necessarily a human, intellectual endeavor which listens. We believe that God has spoken decisively in Christ, and that God’s Word is yet able to be heard in every generation, and so it makes sense that listening is a significant virtue in doing theology. And listening is hard work. But part of doing Christian theology, part of discerning ethical issues, is also listening to the voices of social scientists, sociologists, cultural theorists, anthropologists, and psychologists. They can help us make connections between the Christian faith and ordinary life.

In addition, the church would do well to listen to young adults as they reflect on their current cultural context and as they discern. Many of us, myself included, have been formed into adulthood in communities and in a culture that differs significantly from our cultural milieu today. Simply put, it’s a different world out there. Our young adults in particular experience significant cultural pressures that impact their understanding of sex as well as their sexual practices. And there are significant cultural and social pressures on young adults to cohabit, pressures which the church needs to recognize. The difficult reality is that living together makes sense for many—it has a logic that respects the rights of people to express themselves sexually without the unwieldy {190} entanglements of marriage. (One could also say that it honors the sanctity of marriage when couples refuse to enter into it lightly.) And it makes good economic sense for couples in love to pay rent on a single apartment instead of two.

How will the church care for those who are living together without diminishing a Christian understanding of marriage? How will the church faithfully tell the Christian story of sexuality, marriage, and family amidst the competing narratives of the culture in which we find ourselves? Those are the challenges the church must face. It has much to gain if it faces them soon.


  1. Adapted from Gordon A. Carmichael, “Consensual Partnering in the More Developed Countries,” Journal of the Australian Population Association 12, no. 1 (1995): 51, cited in Adrian Thatcher, Living Together and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4. This widely accepted definition does not include same-sex couples since “legal marriage” is not an option in many places, nor does it include people who live in mixed apartments or houses, but are not having sex with each other—sometimes called “living apart together” (LAT).
  2. Thatcher, 36.
  3. Susan L. Brown and Alan Booth, “Cohabitation Versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (August 1996): 674.
  4. Linda J. Waite, “Cohabitation: A Communitarian Perspective,” unpublished paper as found in Thatcher, 45.
  5. Arielle Kuperberg, “Does Premarital Cohabitation Raise Your Risk of Divorce?”, Council on Contemporary Families (March 2014),
  6. Philip Cohen, “Cohabitation in the Marriage Trend,”
  7. Barna Group, “Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation,” 24 June 2016, 1–2. Not surprisingly, they found that most religious groups in America are least likely to think that cohabitation is a good idea.
  8. Statistics Canada, “Portrait of Families and Living Arrangements in Canada,”
  9. Taken from “Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: Information Report,” NCCB Marriage and Family Committee, as found in Perspectives on Marriage, ed. Kieran Scott and Michael Warren (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 88–99.
  10. Thatcher, 7.
  11. David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together? {191} What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage: A Comprehensive View of Recent Research (New Jersey: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 2002), 9–11.
  12. Barna Group, “Majority of Americans Now Believe in Cohabitation,” 6.
  13. Thatcher, 12.
  14. Rhonda Johnson, “An Analysis of Factors Affecting Adolescent Attitudes toward Cohabitation before Marriage,” Journal of Youth Ministry 4, no. 1 (Fall 2005): 75. Johnson’s work summarizes multiple studies.
  15. Ibid., 76.
  16. Thatcher, 20. Based on multiple studies.
  17. Ibid., 21–22.
  18. Ibid., 22.
  19. Ibid., 20–28.
  20. Popenoe and Whitehead, Should We Live Together, 10.
  21. Ibid., 2.
  22. This correlation is developed significantly by Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Tradition and Modern Options (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1993).
  23. David Matzko McCarthy, Sex and Love in the Home (London: SCM, 2001), 2.
  24. See for example, Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006).
  25. Ibid.
  26. Thatcher, 33–34. Interestingly, going directly from singleness to marriage elicits religious approval and increases religious involvement, while cohabitation is still strongly associated with less religious people.
Irma Fast Dueck is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba. This article is based on research she was asked to do in 2009 by the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, to help pastors think through the cohabitation issue. She is currently working on a book on the topic of baptism.

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