Is It Good News That Cohabitation Rates Are Stalling?

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This morning’s Wall Street Journal reports what, at first glance, Christians would receive as good news. We don’t see an increasing number of couples opting to live together before marriage.

“The decades long climb in the share of American couples living together outside of marriage has come to a halt,” the Journal reports, citing a study of census data by a sociologist at Ohio State University.

In a time of cultural indicators away from marriage and family stability, this seems like a welcome trend toward so-called “traditional values.” Eh, not so much.

The WSJ article by Neil Shah reports that the stall in cohabitation rates might not be because Americans are seeing the importance of marriage and chastity. Instead, the article suggests, the problem might be with the “leave” part of the Genesis mandate to “leave” father and mother and to “cleave” to one another.

Economic conditions mean that fewer people are able to afford homes of their own, and more and more twenty and thirty-somethings are living with their parents. Hard to cohabit when you can’t find a place to live.

But, even beyond the economic realities, the WSJ article suggests that cohabitation might have become too associated with, well, “traditional family values.”

“Another possibility is that cohabitation has become so common and socially accepted that it now is following the same pattern as marriage,” Shah writes. Those who wish to avoid commitments are now “shying away from cohabitation the same way they might avoid marriage.”

This is because, sociologist Zhenachoa Qian says, living together “has become a social institution which comes with expectations and norms,” and, as a result, “young men and women may be discouraged.”

So even living together, with no covenant of permanence, is seen as too repressive and stifling? That’s not good news, when the replacement is even more transient sexual encounters and broken relationships.

There is good news here though, I think. The good news is that this is one more indicator that the sexual revolution is, ultimately, boring. Marriage and family can be discarded, but, in time, their proposed replacements become the new norm, and it’s time for the revolutionaries to rebel again. That can only go on for so long before a broken and bored people begin to wonder what else is there out there?

This is an opportunity for our churches to reclaim the mystery of marriage. We believe in sexual chastity outside of marriage, and in the permanence and exclusivity of the marriage covenant not because it’s a “traditional value.” We believe in it because there’s a reason why human beings flourish with marriage and family stability, and why the loss of these things leads to breakdown and boredom.

Marriage isn’t accidental but is embedded in the universe as a picture of something: the union of Christ with his church (Eph. 5). Jesus doesn’t use his Bride. He doesn’t keep his options open. He and his Bride are one-flesh.

There’s freedom and joy in that gospel, and in its sign. When our neighbors wonder whether there’s more life than ephemeral “relationships,” let’s be ready to point to the ancient newness of the ties that bind us to one another, and liberate us to love and be loved.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).