Live Together Before Marriage?

National Survey

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Most young adults I know live together before they marry.  When the topic has come up in my casual conversations with our children, their friends, and the young people I’ve taught, it’s never a matter for secrecy, embarrassment, or even curiosity.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the world is a very different place now than it was when my siblings and I, all of whom stayed with boyfriends or girlfriends at our apartments for extended periods of time, did not openly say to our parents that we were cohabitating.

In fact, some of my contemporaries wouldn’t admit, even to themselves, that they’d allowed a lover to move in.  I knew girls who would let their boyfriends stay for a week but would never let them put a toothbrush in the bathroom or leave an item of clothing.  And one of my friends, who lived in an apartment downstairs from my own, made her boyfriend leave in the pre-dawn hours, though everyone in the apartment building knew his car was in the parking lot every night.

If this makes you smile and shake your head, consider that most of my friends, including the one who banished her boyfriend before daylight, were evangelical Christians living in the heart of the Bible Belt.  Though we came of age after the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, all of us had been taught that sex outside of marriage was the gravest of sins.  Girls were told from church pulpits that it was our responsibility to draw the line when men experienced “powerful urges.”  We had been told countless times that no decent guy would marry a girl who “dished out” before the wedding, and we were frequently admonished with the story of the woman at the well, living with a man not her husband when Jesus tells her that he knows all about her life.

What I didn’t know was that at about the time that we were all making decisions about our relationships, the government began to gather statistics on cohabitation in the National Survey of Family Growth, done seven times since 1973, shortly after the divorce laws were changed.  Curious when I recently saw an article about the April 2013 government report of the most recent cohabitation practices, I searched to see why the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) would gather such stats.  I went to the site and was astonished to see that the survey asks about the most intimate details of Americans’ sexual habits, primarily to make informed decisions about health care.

The studies are fascinating for what they reveal about the difference in what we preached and what we practiced during my young adulthood.  The surveys consistently showed that the vast majority of women—83% of women ages 15-24 in the earliest study that asked the question in 1982—had engaged in premarital sex.  And that number has remained virtually unchanged—86% in the most recent study.

After laughing out loud about that, I went back to my original reason for visiting the site in the first place and discovered that the number of couples who cohabitate and break up has remained unchanged since 1995—a little over a quarter of them.  So over 70% of couples stay together once they live together, though in recent years the numbers who marry and the numbers who continue to live together without being married have almost reversed, with many more couples staying together and even having children without marrying.

What would the churches of my childhood say about this?  I’m certain, given the number of churches who ask their young people to pledge to wait until they’re married to have sex, that churches are still preaching abstinence.  And it seems to be working about as well as it was working in 1982—which is to say, it isn’t.

Since I left the evangelicals for a more liberal denomination, I’ve never heard such a sermon, though our young people do hear what the Bible says about sexuality.  But it’s presented in a very different way.  My present church and my former church, where my daughter was confirmed, opt to have the parish nurse conduct a workshop for our middle schoolers—with parents invited to some sessions-—in which we try to teach both our boys and our girls to respect and care for their own bodies and to take care of each other’s hearts.  It may not prevent them from being intimate, but after seeing these statistics, I’m even more happy that my daughter had this experience instead of one like my own.

And the good news for the young adults I know who are living together is that your odds of staying with the person you love are pretty good.  So when we older people shake our heads and talk about how much less moral young people are today, you can laugh out loud at our hypocrisy and hand us a stack of government statistics to show that—on the issue of sexual morality, at least—we’re absolutely wrong about your generation.

How do you feel about living with a partner, before or without marriage?  Tell me a story that has shaped your views.