Co-Habitation, Dating, & Marriage

Are two people who decide to live together outside of marriage headed for divorce?

That’s the question I set out to answer, or at least learn more about, a few weeks ago. I stumbled across The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage, a 2012 New York Times article written by a clinical psychologist who works primarily with 20-somethings and has made a healthy living counseling couples and individuals with issues specifically related to cohabitation.

Jay tells the story of one of her clients, a woman named “Jennifer.” Jennifer lived with her husband for four years before they married yet started receiving counseling from Jay when she was considering divorce just one year into marriage.

“What happened?”

Jennifer eventually confessed that when she was living with her husband before they got married, before she knew his commitment to her, it felt like she was constantly trying out to be his wife, wondering if this was the month, or even the year, where she would be seen as worthy enough to be a wife.  “I felt like I was on this multiyear, never-ending audition to be his wife,” she said. “We had all this furniture. We had our dogs and all the same friends. It just made it really, really difficult to break up. Then it was like we got married because we were living together once we got into our 30s.”

Jennifer’s story is heartbreaking, and if we’re not careful we can miss the real issue with co-habitation.

I could see how it’s easy to start living together with someone, especially someone you’re already having sex with.

You’re already staying over at each other’s houses. When you’re both at his place, you use his Internet while your paid-for Internet goes to waste with all your other lonely, underutilized utilities. When you’re both at her place and she wants to invest in some new furniture it’s not the craziest thing for her to ask you what you think. She doesn’t really care but she’s really asking, “Is this furniture eventually going to be our furniture?”

The whole 30-is-the-new-20 culture communicates that your 20’s just don’t really matter that much. And study after study shows that 20-somethings are the most likely to live together outside of marriage. It does matter what you do, all the time, especially in your 20’s. They might be the most formative years of your life because you’re making decisions then that you’ll deal with the rest of your life.

But cohabitation can wreck your 20’s, (or your 30’s, 40’s etc.) because you end up compromising in ways you never intended:

Step 1: You start dating someone.

Step 2: The exciting newness of your new relationship has worn off. Things are honestly going well but you’re not super sure about where the relationship is going long-term so you decide to fast track things, stop the house-hopping and live together. More sex. Less rent. Win-win.

Step 3: The exciting newness of living together has worn off. You look around one day, still unsure about the future of your relationship long-term, but now it’s messy. You think about what it would take to end the relationship. You’d have to find a new place, get new cable/Internet/utilities, etc. You’d have to decide who keeps the dog you adopted together. You’d have to find some, if not all, new friends. If you’re church goers you have to find a new church, small group, etc. If you’re honest with yourself, all that just doesn’t seem worth it.

Step 4: Something gives. Marriage, all of a sudden, doesn’t seem so terrible. Maybe you’re pregnant. Maybe you’re just exhausted at the idea of starting all over with someone new. The thought of doing the whole first date, awkward get to know you, meet the parents routine sounds dreadful. So you get married.

Step 5: Divorce? Maybe. Happy marriage built on a fierce sense of loyalty and covenant commitment to one another? Probably not. You think to yourself, “How did I get here? I would never date my spouse if I was just meeting them now.”

What happened?  Cohabitation happened.

If you’ve made it this far in this post you might be familiar with a cohabitation, dating, and marriage survey I created over the weekend. It was taken by hundreds of people and brought about some interesting results. You can see the most recent version of those results here. (The survey is still open and the results are constantly being updated).

Survey Background Facts:

  • 75% of the survey responders are female.
  • 50% are under the age of 30.
  • 34% have lived or are living with someone outside of marriage.
  • I intentionally left out comment boxes or religious preferences.

5 Thoughts on Cohabitation

1.) Cohabitation is more simple than some people realize.

Cohabitation is most dangerous for people living with who the studies referred to as a “serial cohabitater.” This person, male or female, has no real desire to get married. They are operating out of a misguided, more sex/less rent attitude and/or they desire some companionship without a deep commitment. Ironically, cohabitation requires a commitment that cohabitation cannot actually provide. This group is full of the people trying to rationalize their decisions when really their situation is simple: get your own place.

2.) Cohabitation is more complex than some people realize.

For some, cohabitation is much more common and increasingly more complex. This group is made up primarily of lower-income populations, particularly uneducated, single mothers. Maybe they made some mistakes in their past, giving up on a dream or college to be with the man they loved. Maybe a teenage pregnancy altered their life forever. No matter how they got there, they have now arrived at a place of need it seems impossible to break out of. They might have multiple kids with multiple partners but for them, cohabitation has become a financial necessity.

My hope for them would be to move in with parents, friends, other family members…basically anyone but a potential sexual partner. It’s this group of people that gets overlooked by these studies and articles. Remember “Jennifer”? She was paying to see a very expensive and highly sought-after therapist to unpack her cohabitation-based problems. No one from this group is able to acquire such help yet their life’s problems can be largely chalked up to cohabitation as well.

3.) There is a very real correlation between couples living together outside of marriage and the success of their future marriages.

An absolutely conclusive study does not exist. Cohabitation does work sometimes, as long as “work” is defined by a lack of divorce instead of faithfulness to the God-ordained covenant of marriage. When cohabitation does “work” it is almost always the same situation: Two people who genuinely care for one another in a particularly selfless way date and eventually move in together. They later get married after living outside of marriage but it turns out that both of them only ever lived with each other before they got married.

My encouragement to them is simple: If you’re ready to move in together, you’re ready for marriage. If you’re not, then you’re not. That’s even more selfless. Cohabitation relationships are harder to dissolve than just dating but much easier to dissolve than marriage. Marriage communicates the ultimate “I love you and I actually mean it.”

Yet the facts are hard to dispute. Cohabitation does make breaking up harder and eventually makes marriage easier…all to someone you may not actually have ever decided to marry if you had never started living together.

4.) Cohabitation requires absolutely zero commitment.

This might be the hardest reality to grasp because perceived commitment is all around you!

  • You picked out the furniture TOGETHER.
  • You made new friends TOGETHER.
  • You got a pet TOGETHER.
  • You have a bed TOGETHER.
  • Yet there is nothing, no level of mutual trust or lasting commitment keeping one person from waking up one day, deciding to quit, and walk out. People definitely walk out of marriages in similar fashion, but they break real commitments to do so, not perceived ones, not counting the financial and social consequences divorce has.

Men often perceive cohabitation as precious time bought to avoid marriage while women simultaneously think they’ve got their man moving toward marriage.

5.) Co-habitation is incredibly uncomfortable for kids.

If you’re a single and/or divorced parent, you should never have a boyfriend or girlfriend sleepover and you should never live with a partner and force your kids to live in that same environment. It is confusing, unfair, emotional, and incredibly selfish. You put your kids in a very difficult situation to like, trust, and/or ever love your significant other if they do indeed become your spouse one day. Just don’t. If your partner is not willing to marry you, they don’t get that level of access to you. Even if you don’t value yourself enough to deny them that access, value your kids enough to make the right decision.

What are your thoughts on cohabitation? I’d love to hear from you! You can leave a comment below.


7 Questions to NEVER Ask on Date Night: From a Pastor & a Therapist

It’s Friday morning and I’m already excited for date night! I hope you are planning for a date night with your spouse as well.

This is the companion article to our first post. If you missed that one you can read it here: 7 Questions to Ask on Date Night: From a Pastor & a Therapist. If dating your spouse is a new concept for you, our hope is that these two articles give you a great starting point to pursue the one person that matters most in your life.

Once again I’ve teamed up with my friend and licensed marriage and family therapist, Carrie Feero, to help me come up with some practical advice for date night newbies. If you’re in the River Valley area you can schedule a counseling appointment with Carrie by clicking here and/or follow her blog here.

Just like there are questions that are great to ask on date night, there are just as many you should never ask. Date night is about connecting with your spouse while pushing pause on your incredibly busy lives. Some questions/conversations allow aspects of that busyness to creep into date night and can ruin the evening.

7 Questions to NEVER Ask on Date Night

  • How do you think ________ and _________’s marriage is doing?

Date night is about your marriage, not anybody else’s. Many of you know what it’s like to walk with friends through an unhealthy marriage, maybe even one that ends in divorce. As painful as it can be to watch your friends fail to honor their commitment to one another, their marriage is not fodder for your date night conversation. Those conversations are important to have, especially if you are genuinely trying to plan how to help, and not just gossiping.

P.S. Celebrity marriages (no matter how comically brief they may be) are also off the table for date night discussion.

  • How can we improve on our budget for next month?

Have a set time to discuss finances and other household responsibilities. While budgeting can definitely impact your marriage, date night is not the time to focus on finances. It’s about each other.

Read about how getting on a budget helped our (Steven & Hayley’s) marriage here: The 1 Thing We Fight About.

  • What did our daughter’s dance teacher say after her lesson?

Date night isn’t about the kids either. It can be hard to separate your marriage from the rest of the family, but research shows that healthy families require healthy marriages. Your kids learn from you; give them a good example. Often the best way for you to love your kids well is to model for them a healthy marriage, one where spouses see and treat each other as more than co-parents.

  • What are we supposed to bring to the tailgate on Saturday?

This is not the time to catch up on errands, to-do lists, and social responsibilities. You have plenty of time to do that stuff, like during the sermon at your church, on your way home from work, or after the kids go to bed.

  • What’s the score to the game?

Your date night should be focused on your spouse. If you’re on a date night, keep focused on each other, not the TV’s on the wall or music playing from the speakers. If that becomes too much of a distraction for you, find a place where you can have these types of conversations without all of the distractions. It may take some creativity.

When our date night takes us to a place with sports on the TV’s, I (Steven) try and make a point to sit on the side of the booth where I can’t see the game(s). With that said, we can never have date night at Buffalo Wild Wings, where there are no less than 83 TV’s in the main dining area.

  • When are we going to have kids?

Or insert any question that sparks debate or conflict here. Old wounds, hot topics, and points of contention are off limits for date nights. While there are absolutely times and places to have these discussions, date night is focused on being a positive, bonding experience where you can connect with each other, not start a heated or hurtful conversation.

  • Wanna swing by Wal-Mart on our way home? We’re out of __________.

In Arkansas, our love for Wal-Mart runs deep. But date night is for date night, not grocery shopping. If you’re out of bug spray, order from Amazon. They’ll ship to your door in 2 days for free! Nothing kills the mood on the way home from a great dinner quite like restocking on orange juice and toilet paper.

Click here to catch up on the first post in this series, “7 Questions to Ask on Date Night”

Feedback: What question(s) would you consider adding to this list?


7 Questions to Ask on Date Night (From a Pastor & a Therapist)

I have written about the need for married couples to have a regular date night on several occasions. (See: Nobody Owes You Happiness and Who Has Better Sex?) However, I realized that I never really discussed practical advice about what to do on date night.

So, I asked my friend and licensed marriage and family therapist, Carrie Feero to help me come up with some practical advice for date night newbies. Carrie has more letters after her last name than Jarrod Saltalamacchia has on the back of his baseball jersey so you know she’s good. If you’re in the River Valley area you can schedule a counseling appointment with Carrie by clicking here and/or follow her blog here.

Two quick thoughts before we get started.

  1. Date night as discussed in the questions below is specifically focused on married couples. If you’re not there yet, read here: How to Date as a Christian.
  2. Date night is not a substitute for counseling. If your marriage is unhealthy, date night is not the solution and can actually cause some harm if you view it as such. See: 13 Questions to Gauge if You Need Marriage Counseling.

If date night is unfamiliar for you or if it has simply been far too long, our hope is that these questions can be a great starting point to have a meaningful evening together!

7 Questions to Ask on Date Night

(Stay tuned for part two of this series, “7 Questions to NEVER Ask on Date Night”)

  • If you could only have 3 things on a deserted island, what would you pick?

Asking questions like this (and even funny ‘Would You Rather’ questions) help you learn more about your spouse in a fun and playful way. Not all questions during date night have to be super serious; it’s a time to play, have fun, and grow together.

  • What can I do to make you feel loved?

Sometimes being upfront and asking can be the greatest way to get feedback on how to love and serve your partner. When answering, it’s important to remember kindness, compassion, and humility – this is not a list of demands or time to criticize potential past mistakes.

  • What are some of your favorite days in our marriage so far?

Revisiting memories can be a great way to spark up feelings and moments of connection that you had perhaps forgotten. These memories don’t have to be big landmark moments like anniversaries or trips. It is just as important to celebrate the spontaneous and seemingly mundane, which are much more the norm in any marriage.

  • Who has helped contribute to strengthening our marriage the most?

Thinking and pondering about who has helped pour into your marriage can be a great way to process how far your marriage has come, weaker areas that have become stronger, and how you can continue to grow from this support.

  • If you could describe our life together right now in one word, what would it be? Why?

These relationship inventories can be good ways for each spouse to see how the other is currently perceiving the state of the marriage. It can also be an exercise on gratitude and contentment as you learn, together, how to cultivate an appreciation for where you are in life today, not tomorrow and not the next stage. Today. Together.

  • Where is somewhere you’d love to travel with me?

Dreaming together about future plans can be a fun way to learn more about each other and think about your future together. It’s not just pulling from the past, but living in the present and planning for the future that makes a marriage successful.

  • When have you felt closest to me?

This is helpful for both partners. For one, it helps to revisit and rekindle a time when she/he felt loved and connected. For the other, it helps to remind and refresh what he/she was doing or not doing so it can be repeated again.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, “7 Questions to NEVER Ask on Date Night”

Feedback: What question would you consider adding to this list?


Start College Right

I love Instagram. I don’t have to read silly, often-uninformed Facebook rants or be bombarded with ads/promoted posts on Twitter. This past weekend I noticed a wave of people posting pictures of their newly decorated dorm rooms. As you can imagine, there is a ridiculous difference between a freshman girl’s dorm setup and a freshman guy’s setup.

Watching these new students get settled in and adjusted to college life reminded me of how unsure I was when I first stepped foot on my college campus. If I could sit down with any incoming college freshman this is what I would tell them.

Here are 4 ways to start college right:

1.) Get involved.

Being in a new place, away from the comforts of home can be nerve racking. But the best way to overcome it is to simply put yourself out there. Maybe you don’t have many friends from your high school attending college with you. Maybe that’s a good thing! Either way, you get a fresh new start in the friendship department, something that does not come around often. Start right from the beginning because it’s so hard to move backwards, especially when many people have already established themselves in certain friendship tribes by the middle of the semester.

Even if you’re a commuter, spend lots of time on campus. One year in college, my wife commuted an hour to campus and would often end up staying on campus with friends until midnight. Join an organization. Make friends. Be spontaneous.

A word of caution: be picky with who you pick as your new friends. They are more influential on your life now that you’re away from home and don’t see your family as much. You will become who you hang out with. And some of the decisions you make during your college years (major, job/career path, maybe even who to marry) are shaped largely by the influence of your friends. Choose wisely.

2.) Don’t date your first semester.

Don’t get me wrong…college is a great time and place to date. I met my wife there. We started dating there and we got engaged there. But during your first semester away from home you’re still adapting to a new world and so is that person you’re interested in. Give it a few months. If they are not willing to wait until after Christmas, are they really worth dating anyway? See who you start to become. See who they start to become. Then decide. (See: How to Date as a Christian).

3.) Actually go to college.

I promise your parents didn’t make me say this but you do actually have to go to class. Remember why you’re there: to get an education as well as an experience that will help equip you for your future. Education first, experience next.

Some practical tips:

  • Don’t take 8 AM classes unless you were home-schooled.
  • Study in the library, not your dorm or the coffee shop. Netflix and flirting with baristas don’t benefit your GPA.
  • Don’t fall for the flashcard effect: I use dto trick myself into thinking I had studied when I had really just made flashcards. Preparing to study is not studying. Find what works for you but then actually do it.

4.) Plug into a local church.

I could write forever on how much I love the church. Being away from home means finding a [new] church. It will not take you long to see an abundance of fake community on your college campus. Find a church where the people are real and will help point you to a real Jesus.

College is a time where you will hear over and over again: “This time is all about you. These years are all about you.” Don’t buy into the lie. Join a local church and serve someone. Get outside yourself and grow with a community that will love and equip you during these amazing years.

Question: What other tip(s) would you pass along to new college students?



How to Date as a Christian

 1.) Be legit.

If you want to find and date someone who has an authentic relationship with Jesus, you need to have an authentic relationship with Jesus. If you want to date someone who reads Scripture daily, is involved in a local church, and gives of their time and resources sacrificially, you need to be doing those things as well. And you need to be doing them because that’s who you are, not just to garner the attention of someone else.

This truth can also be applied to every area of your life…how you shop, where you eat, who you hang out with, and your general likes and dislikes. Far too often, single people try and be someone they’re not. 

Even if you end up marrying that person you’ll both be unhappy in the long run once the truth about both of you surfaces.

2.) Make a list of what you want in a spouse.

Some people mistakenly think what they’re looking for in a spouse has little to do with what they’re looking for in a person to date. You should never date someone you know you could never marry.

Make the list realistic. Things like specific hair color and hobbies should not make the cut but you also need to make the list challenging. Things like hard work ethic and compassionate should make the list. Set the bar high because someone out there might be setting theirs high as well. Maybe they are currently telling others no because they’re really waiting for someone like you to come along!

3.) Make a list of what you commit to be as a spouse.

This list is much less common but easily more important. Regardless of your age and stage in life, who is it that you are willing to commit to be in a future marriage? Look for people to date who compliment and challenge this list as well.

This list should be at least twice as long as the list of what you want.

4.) Remember your true identity.

Jerry Maguire is a liar. Nobody completes you but Jesus. It’s true, You May Never Get Married. If that never happens [again] for you, is Jesus still enough? The “abundant life” Jesus promises to give to his followers is not exclusively offered to married people! (John 10:10)

So don’t buy into the lie that without a spouse you are somehow a second class citizen, damaged goods, or less loved by God.

5.) Don’t ditch your friends.

Don’t be the one who dates someone and 3 months into their new relationship they’ve all but cut themselves off from their genuine, long-standing friends. Now obviously these friendships change as a relationship moves closer to marriage, as it should. But date in a way that when you break up (has it ever ended any other way?) you’ll still have your friends at your side.

A word for opposite sex friends: As you get closer and close to marriage, a man’s best friend other than his [soon-to-be] wife needs to be a man and a woman’s best friend other than her [soon-to-be] husband needs to be a woman.

6.) Set specific physical boundaries…and don’t break them!

This is a BIG deal. Mistakes happen. But there’s a LOT you can do to prevent yourself from making a bad decision you will regret later.

A note to divorced people: Even though you were previously married, you still need these. You can’t expect your teenage children to follow guidelines you’re not willing to adhere to as well.

This is ultimately a respect issue. Do you respect the person you’re dating enough to honor and protect them from sin? Could you give them away at their wedding day to someone else with no regrets?

Don’t wait to do this! You will never set them in the moment. If people are making fun of your boundaries, it’s probably because you’re on the right track.

When Hayley and I were dating in college, until the day we were married, these were our physical boundaries. We weren’t perfect at them, but we were very successful at maintaining them. These helped our marriage get off to a great start. These are what worked for us but they might be a good starting point for you:

  1. Never lay down together. Not for a nap. Not just to kiss. Not just one time. Keep it vertical, friends!
  2. Never stay the night.
  3. Never touch an area that is covered by an undergarment.
  4. Never be alone in an apartment/house together. What do you need to do in private together that you can’t do at a coffee shop, in a park, with friends, or at a restaurant?
  5. SHARE your boundaries with a very small group (2-3) of older people you trust and ask them to hold you accountable.

One of the best things that happened to me during this time of our life was a good friend of mine asked me to text him every night when I was on my way home from hanging out with Hayley. I texted him up until the day we married and I will always be thankful for him. Accountability is not a bad word and nobody is too good for it!

Questions for feedback: What would you add to the list? What tip(s) do you disagree with?

© Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved