Missionary cohabitating


Young men and women have accepted the message from their culture — a message that is not supported by the data — that cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage. Data from the University of Wisconsin provides a painful bottom line: couples that cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent.

Church people have a name for what happens when young believers get romantically involved with unbelievers.

They call it "missionary dating," usually with one eyebrow raised in skepticism. Most of these relationships involve a good girl who is convinced that, with time, she can help a bad boy see the error of his ways and learn to walk the straight and narrow path.

Times have changed. According to new research, a surprising number of females have graduated from "missionary dating" to "missionary cohabitating."

"My theory is that women are willing to make sacrifices for their partners, once they have become emotionally attached," said researcher Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "They're willing to make compromises to try to hang on to the relationship. Men won't do that. ...

"These girls are probably thinking, 'He's not perfect. But I love him and I can help him change.' Meanwhile, we know what the guys are thinking. They're thinking, 'I'm not sure she is the one I want. She's not my soul mate. But she'll do for now.' "

What is fascinating is that women who say they are deeply religious are just as likely to live with men before marriage as women who are not, wrote Stanley, Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman. Their work is summarized in "Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Non-Marital Cohabitation," written for the Journal of Family Issues.

Meanwhile, they found that men with strong religious beliefs are much less likely to cohabitate before marriage than non-religious men.

As a rule, people who lived together before marriage were less religious than those who refused to do so. Religious believers also said they were more committed to the institution of marriage. This is precisely what Stanley and the members of the University of Denver team expected to find as they interviewed 908 people who were married, engaged or cohabitating.

What surprised them was the sharp contrast between the choices made by religious women and religious men.

Do the math. There are currently more than 5 million unmarried American couples living together. Somewhere, there are a lot of religious women who have taken "missionary dating" to a whole new level. They seem to think that they can evangelize the men in their beds.

Meanwhile, Stanley and his colleagues are convinced that women who want solid, "until death do us part" marriages should be on the lookout for men who have strong religious beliefs, who are deeply committed to the institution of marriage and who, as a matter of conviction, reject cohabitation.

That may sound obvious, but it was in the data. If religious women want the odds on their side, they have to hunt for men who are willing to rebel against the conventional wisdom of this age.

"Given that 60 percent or more of couples now live together prior to marriage," wrote Stanley, Whitton and Markman, it seems that "not living together prior to marriage is becoming unconventional. From such a viewpoint, the unconventional couples who do not live together prior to marriage may be the couples with the more dedicated and religious males."

These unique religious males appear to be trying to "preserve the maximum differentiation between marriage and non-marriage. ... In the context of societal trends that increasingly blur the lines between cohabitation and marriage, this stance would represent the new unconventionality."

Stanley said that his team's research parallels other studies on one key point. Millions of young Americans are terrified of divorce and, thus, want to be careful before tying the knot. Young men seem to grasp that marriage does require major sacrifices, sacrifices that many are not willing to make.

Thus, they use cohabitation as a stalling device.

"Young men and women have accepted the message from their culture — a message that is not supported by the data — that cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage," he said. "They believe that they are in training for marriage. They are in training, but it seems that cohabitating is training them to develop exit strategies for getting out of relationships, including their marriages.

From the pulpit, the typical pastor can see all kinds of people whose ears will burn during a sermon about what used to be called "living in sin."

There will be a few young adults who are cohabitating, as well as many moms and dads whose children quietly share street addresses with their significant others. There will be smiling couples the pastor married without asking many personal questions. There may be one or two divorced deacons with skeletons in their closets.

Few ministers have the courage to risk offending these people, said Scott Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. Pastors are afraid that if they preach on cohabitation many people will get mad and that some will hit the exits.

"Pastors are getting very gun shy when it comes to issues of marriage, family and sex," he said. "Certainly, cohabitation would be right at the top of a list of these issues, along with premarital sex. They are so tired of getting beat up because they have hurt people's feelings.

"So they just give up and what you hear is silence from the church. All people are hearing are the 'Go!' signals from the media and the culture."

This silence seems to be having an effect, especially with women, according to a study by Stanley and his colleagues Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman.

The researchers found — as expected — that deeply religious men are much less likely to cohabitate before saying their vows. But, to their surprise, they learned that religious women are just as likely to move in before marriage as non-religious women.

These religious women probably think they are being cautious and "testing" their relationships. They may be convinced that they have to cohabitate in order to compete for love in this day and age. Some may believe that they will eventually be able to convert their live-in lovers to a traditional view of faith, marriage and family.

"Truth is, a woman gains nothing" by cohabitating before marriage, said journalist Michael McManus, author of Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married. Whatever their rationalizations, these women "are just being fools. ... Too many women today are allowing themselves to be used as playmates," he said.

Some church leaders, said McManus, have fallen silent on this issue because they no longer believe that sex outside of marriage is sin. Their silence is understandable. It is harder to understand the silence in so many congregations — Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox — that still affirm centuries of Judeo-Christian teachings on sexual morality.

Yet that silence is real. The "Marriage Savers" network (www.marriagesavers.org) is active in 163 cities and towns in 39 states and, wherever he travels to speak, McManus said he never sees more than one or two hands raised when he asks, "How many of you have ever heard a sermon on cohabitation?"

McManus is convinced most pastors simply do not know that 5 million unmarried Americans are living together. More than 60 percent of couples cohabitate before marriage. Pastors do not know that these women face higher levels of depression and lower levels of communication and commitment. They are more than 60 percent more likely to be assaulted and their children are endangered, as well.

Data from the University of Wisconsin provides a painful bottom line: couples that cohabit before marriage increase their odds of divorce by 50 percent. Researchers found that only 15 out of every 100 cohabitating couples were married after a decade.

The goal is not to attack couples with these numbers, said McManus. The goal is to warn them and to offer them mentors, in the form of married couples who understand the challenges that are ahead. The church needs to reach out to young people while they are dating, before the pressures built to live together. Parents need this information, too.

"We need to set a high standard, but we can do that in a loving way," he said. "What the church has done is collapse its standards. The modern church is — by its silence — giving young couples nothing to aspire to. They need a higher goal."


Terry Mattingly. "Missionary cohabitating." On Religion column Scripp's Howard News Service.

All columns are the sole property of the author. Reprinted with permission. Reproduction is prohibited.


Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic College and is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council For Christian Colleges and Universities and a member of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. He writes a weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

Copyright © 2002 Terry Mattingly

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