While single and working in the Boston area during the 1980s, I observed the cohabitation phenomenon up close. My friends moved in with guys anticipating stability along with the fun and, after a year or so, sought therapy for anxiety and depression. Whatever twinge of jealousy I felt at living my chaste Mormon life turned into gratitude for my congregation and its single young men willing to date and eventually commit to long-term relationships with an engagement ring rather than a U-Haul. I also felt a sense of je ne sais quoi when a friend in New York married via a circle of Catholic singles and a colleague at work found a husband through a Boston Jewish young adult group. Thank you, God, for organized religion! And for rabbis, priests, and other faith leaders who convince young men of marriage’s moral, spiritual, and emotional gifts.
But what of my secular friends? For many, no singles group will provide an alternative to their trajectory toward premarital sex, cohabitation, fatherless children, multiple partners, and uncommitted relationships—particularly among the poor where married role models are almost non-existent. The likelihood that young adults today will find the wherewithal to buck cohabitation is minute, the consequences gargantuan: adults who reap none of the proven physical, economic, and psychological benefits of marriage; children far less likely to succeed academically, psychologically, and economically; and communities upended by the crime and dissolution a dearth of marriage yields.
How then, as R.R. Reno recently called for in these pages, does society “restore a culture of marriage”? Those eager to make the case for marriage can take heart from public health campaigners who took on a cigarette culture that permeated movies, magazines, and television. Research is on our side as much as it was on theirs. The fact that it all seemed overwhelmingly futile didn’t dissuade those crusaders, or for that matter civil rights workers and suffragettes whose initial prospects of success seemed bleak indeed. Can it be that hard in this internet age to somehow get across the fairly unremarkable steps—finish high school, have children only after getting married—that will greatly increase the chances for achievement among all socioeconomic classes?
I had read few criticisms of cohabitation in publications other than First Things, Family Foundations, Christianity Today, and the magazines of my own community, the Latter-day Saints. But the New York Times recently ran an editorial by Meg Jay, a University of Virginia clinical psychologist, the title of which—“The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage”—says it all. Her therapy client example mirrors the experience my friends underwent in the 1980s: even if you do eventually get married, the chances for divorce skyrocket, and not just for the current relationship, but for those in your future as well.
A two-thirds majority in a University of Virginia poll agreed that “moving in together before marriage [is] a good way to avoid divorce.” Are all of these social scientists indefatigably collecting their longitudinal, cross-national, rigorous research working in a complete vacuum? But I digress. The good news is that an essay refuting the “cohabitation prophylaxis” theory appeared in the Gray Lady and, one way or another, the facts will inevitably emerge.
I also find hope in another fact: middle and upper classes still get it that marriage is far better for their children than any substitution. Academics are finding more and better ways to bring the crucial message to the poor that married parents are not only good for children, but will almost assuredly lead them into the middle class.
Another hopeful sign has emerged in a highly unlikely place: the engagement of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. I’m not at all calling the Brangelina engagement ring a sign of progress after seven years of living together. But I admit to taking heart and finding fascinating the reason Pitt and Jolie decided to wed after all these years:
“We’re getting a lot of pressure from the kids,” Pitt noted. “Yeah, it means something to them and they’re, you know, they have questions when their friends’ parents are married and why is that?”
“So what do you tell them?”
“We will someday, we will: ‘That’s a great idea! Get mommy a ring! Okay, I will, I will.’”
Even children, without being exposed to a speck of data, know that marriage is good for them. They feel anchorless without that piece of paper and ring saying Daddy and Mommy are in this for the long haul. All the French chateaus, private lessons, and front row seats at the circus can’t make up for it. Grown-ups probably intrinsically understand that, too, but need some cultural bulwarks to withstand the onslaught of misinformation and powerful trends. It’s up to those of us with ammunition—through church, the internet, and any and all means—to give them some reinforcements.
Betsy VanDenBerghe is a writer specializing in family and religious issues and lives in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at email@example.com.
R.R. Reno, Whither Marriage
Meg Jay, The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage
Brad Pitt on "Moneyball," kids and marriage
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.