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The cancerous curse of cohabitation

Editor’s note: Further background for this article is found in the Eyres’ Mormon Times column of last week.

Why use words as negative and shocking as “cancerous” and “curse” for cohabitation?

Why? Because cohabitation (unmarried couples living together) is growing and spreading at an alarming clip and replacing the healthier cells of traditional, committed marriage. And because the statistical results of the shift are overwhelmingly negative both for children and for couples.

Of course some cases of cohabitation work out well and lead to marriage and to stable families, but as the saying goes, the odds are against it.

We are not judging, just reporting.

Consider some of the findings in the recently released study from the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — a U.S. poll of more than 12,000 women between 15 and 44 years of age.

Some 29 percent had not lived with a man. Of the 71 percent who had, 23 percent moved in with a man when they married him, and 48 percent simply cohabitated, living with a man to whom they were not married.

In other words, of all the “first unions” that occur today in this country, more than two-thirds are cohabitations, and fewer than one-third are marriages.

Another way of saying it: More than twice as many couples initially move in together unmarried as married.

On an earlier version of the same study, done less than 20 years ago, the figures were shockingly different, with 26 percent who had not lived with a man, 34 percent who cohabitated for their first union and 40 percent who married before living with someone.

So in less than two decades, the number of couples who cohabitate first has soared by nearly 40 percent, while those who marry first has declined by more than 40 percent.

Those of us who worry that the same-sex marriage movement will redefine marriage ought to consider the much larger issue of cohabitation. The 50 percent of couples who cohabit instead of marrying will redefine marriage far more than the small percentage who would practice same-sex marriage.

But let’s go beyond the dramatic increases in cohabitation to some of its results and effects.

The poll found that after two to three years, roughly one-third of cohabitating couples have married, one-third have broken up and one-third continue to live together unmarried. And an increasing percentage (now about 21 percent) of cohabitating couples have a child within their first two years of living together — a child who is born to parents with a one-in-three chance of breaking up while the child is still a baby.

Other studies show that married couples that cohabitate prior to marriage are more likely to divorce than those that do not — some say twice as likely. So even among the third that get married after cohabitating, the chances are reduced that the marriage will last and that it will provide a stable home for a child.

Besides the immediate statistical peril to both children and couples, there are other fundamental problems with cohabitation:

    1. It both replaces and weakens marriage as suggested above.
    2. It treats a partner like a car or a vacuum cleaner that ought to be used or test-driven before it is committed to.
    3. It stems from “individual freedom and options” rather than from responsibility, commitment and children’s needs. Selfishness prevails over sacrifice.
    4. It doesn’t unite or combine families like marriage does. You don’t gain cousins, uncles, in-laws and extended families through cohabitation.
    5. It doesn’t bring about resilience and reconciliation. The tendency and the impulse when things turn sour are to cut and run rather than to hang in there and resolve.
    6. It feeds on itself. People who have cohabitated once are more likely to do it again, and each time the chance of maintaining a long-term, committed relationship goes down.

    Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at or Their latest Deseret e-book is “On the Homefront."