Cohabitation, Marriage And Fragile Relationships

How do we see cohabitation as Christians? I’d be interested in your thoughts. I have many Christian friends who adopt the ‘traditional’ view, but an increasing number who live together before marriage. Friends of both persuasions read this blog.

I’ve known for years that research that suggests those who cohabit are more likely to break up than those who don’t. I seem to recall figures that couples who cohabit and then marry are 60% more likely to divorce than couples who only move in together at marriage. Couples who cohabit but never marry are twice as likely to break up as couples who marry without cohabiting first. However, I’ve lost the references to that research, so my memory of it may be faulty.

I have, though, now come across some nuanced research from a Christian perspective that not only shows the greater likelihood of cohabiting couples to break up, but also goes into something I had long thought: that there are many reasons for cohabitation. While in some less bureaucratic societies a couple moving in together did constitute marriage, cohabitation in our society has a number of different reasons. Informal marriage, trial marriage, a rejection of marriage, a matter of convenience and so on. The report, ‘Cohabitation – an alternative to marriage?‘  comes from the Jubilee Centre. One of the researchers was interviewed by Cross Rhythms.

It can’t all be about statistics, of course. It must also be about what we believe to be the core principles of marriage and relationships. For example, is a sexual relationship covenantal or even sacramental?

So – over to you. How do you see this?


  1. Speaking personally, my husband and I were separated by a very large ocean for almost a year before we married. He is Australia, myself in US. I don’t think cohabitation would be something I would do. However, a piece of paper doesn’t a relationship make, it’s all about commitment of the heart. We have a PM here in Australia living with her First Bloke at the Lodge and no-one condemns them. In fact, I wrote a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald supporting them (it was published!).


  2. I speak as one who has had experience of two entirely different relationships where I cohabited before marriage.
    As we all fall short of the glory of God, I have to believe that no sin is above another, and whilst I did and would encourage our sons & daughters to follow a biblical ‘template’, my main concern would be for their health, safety and happiness. Even Christian relationships cannot guarantee that! If they found their needs met in a loving, contented, relationship I would be happy. When they eventually find a living relationship with God, then it will be even better.


    1. Mary,

      Thanks for your honesty. I’ve been thinking of posting something on this subject for ages, and never known the right way to open up a discussion without causing problems over the tone of what I said, until I saw the Cross Rhythms interview based on the Jubilee Centre report. I have noticed an increasing number of Christians living together before marriage, and it raises a number of questions for me:

      1. Is this a caving in to the wider culture, and if so, how is it best addressed pastorally?
      2. Is it something more moderate than that, but linked, perhaps, to one of the cultural reasons for cohabitation, namely a fear of relationships breaking down?
      3. Is it a sign that what you call the biblical ‘template’ needs amending? Personally, I don’t think it does, because I do hold to the conviction that the ‘one flesh’ nature of these relationships do make them what I loosely call above ‘covenantal’ and ‘sacramental’. However, that still takes me back to the question of how we face these questions in a pastoral context.


  3. The idea that you’re only ‘married’ if you’ve had a ceremony, and there’s a legal certificate to prove it, is a modern one. I think a large part of the problem here is that we’ve inherited an understanding of marriage which is too narrow to handle what people are actually doing. If they’re in a long-term committed relationship, then I think that should be recognised by the church, regardless of the legal position. What matters is the relationship.


    1. Hi Robert,

      Welcome here and thanks for your comment. You’re quite right, of course, that marriage hasn’t always historically been about a ceremony and a certificate – and I was careful in the post not to say that.

      However, since cohabitation seems to have a multiplicityof meanings, as I tried to suggest, one difficulty is which ones are the long-term committed relationships? In some societies in the past, when a man and woman moved in together, that was the sign of marriage, but then it was socially understood that by doing that they were making a lifetime commitment. But as I tried to suggest, that is not necessarily the assumption with every cohabiting relationship today. If you think there’s a way to distinguish, I’d be genuinely interested to know.


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