People typically try to avoid getting splinters. Not anymore.
In a recent New York Times column, Meg Jay describes the downside of cohabitating. The dangers are reminiscent of the old warning – go against the grain of the universe and you get splinters. What’s puzzling is that Jay is hesitant to tell couples how to prevent getting splinters. Charles Murray might know why.
Jay is a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. She’s also the author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now. Her clients regularly include young couples who lived together before getting married. Quite often, their year-old marriages are already on the rocks. Jay writes of one young woman who spent over a year planning a lavish wine-country wedding. A few months into the marriage, she was looking for a divorce lawyer. “I spent more time planning my wedding than I spent happily married.”1
A growing number of young couples assume cohabitation helps prevent divorce. That’s partly why cohabitation has become so common. In the United States it has increased by more than 1,500 percent in the past 50 years. In 1960, less than 450,000 unmarried couples lived together. Now the number exceeds 7.5 million. Today, the majority of young adults will live with a romantic partner at least once, and more than half of all marriages will be preceded by cohabitation. Nearly half of 20-somethings now agree that living together before marriage helps couples “find out whether you really get along.” About two-thirds say they believe that moving in together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Jay reports that couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages – and more likely to divorce – than couples who do not. Researchers attribute this to “sliding, not deciding” about a relationship. Jay writes that moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation. Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it will mean.
These shortcuts don’t work. Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage. Men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship, postpone commitment, or enjoy casual sex. “This gender asymmetry,” writes Jay, “is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.” In other words, you get splinters taking shortcuts.
“When you go against the grain of the universe,” writes Eugene Peterson, “you get splinters.”2 Cohabitation goes against the grain of the grand story called the gospel. In this story, God – Father, Son, and Spirit – desire to expand their circle of love by having the Son wed a bride. The bride was supposed to include the entirety of humanity – us. The plotline was – and still is – Jesus coming to earth to wed his bride. This plot was twisted when we sinned. The gist of the story however remains the same. Jesus is coming to earth to wed his bride. It’s only the disposition of the bride that’s different.
Only those who desire to be married to Christ are now the Bride of Christ. Desire is a drive – you don’t “slide” into marriage with Jesus. It’s an act of faith that includes reflection, repentance, repudiation of the former life, and embrace of a new one. Believing in Jesus makes an individual “betrothed” to Christ (II Cor. 11:12). In Christ’s day, betrothal was a period of time when a couple was considered married but lived apart from one another to demonstrate chastity and devotion. The husband prepared a place to live (notice how Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” – John 14:2). When Christ returns, he’ll sweep away his adoring bride who wants to be married to him. They’ll celebrate with a grand wedding ceremony and sumptuous feast. Afterward, the couple will consummate their marriage (Rev. 19:7). In this story, there is no such thing as cohabitation before consummation.
When marriage was considered to be an earthly picture of an out-of-this-world reality (Eph. 5:32), social relationships were shaped by this sacred story. Cohabitation was considered to be going against the grain of the universe. Do it and you get splinters. I don’t expect Meg Jay to “buy” this story, but you’d think the devastating outcomes she witnesses would cause her to caution against cohabitation. Nope. “I am not for or against living together,” she opines. “Cohabitation is here to stay” Jay writes, so she only counsels young adults to “protect their relationships from the cohabitation effect” by discussing expectations. I call this “the condom effect.” Condoms might protect from disease but they’re poor at preventing divorce. Discussing expectations might mitigate some of the effects of cohabitation, but there is no evidence it prevents divorce.
Meg Jay has fallen prey to the trap of today’s nonjudgmentalism. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray notes, “If you are of a conspiratorial cast of mind, nonjudgmentalism looks suspiciously like the new upper class keeping all the good stuff to itself.” America’s elites can see destructive patterns, but they’re hesitant to pronounce any judgments about them.3 This seems to describe Jay, who recognizes how cohabitation is often ruinous, but can’t bring herself to recommend against it. It’s a troubling state of affairs when we assume it’s better for young couples to experience painful splinters than prevent them. It wasn’t that long ago that preventive medicine was considered better than corrective. That seems to be less the case today.
1 “The Downside of Cohabitating Before Marriage,” the New York Times, April 15, 2012
2 Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 121.
3 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 290.