Dr. Wall continues his series on Cohabitation by looking at how cohabitation hurts marriage.  For the first in this series click here.  To see the entire series click here.

O LORD, who may abide in Your tent?
Who may dwell on Your holy hill?…

He (who) swears to his own hurt and does not change. (NASB)

Psalm 15:1,4

He who keeps his oath even when it hurts. (NIV)

Psalm 15:4

In yesterday’s blog (“Cavalier About Marriage”) I looked at some of the legal nightmares that cohabiting outside marriage creates. Today I want to focus on how cohabiting inadvertently hurts marriage. Curiously, the people who cohabit tell me that the reason they are doing so is because they don’t want to get a divorce. Most cohabiters I see in therapy grew up in divorced families or highly conflictual families and dread the thought of having a marriage that ends up a catastrophe like that themselves. The theory goes that if we cohabit we’ll have a chance to try on each other for size to see if we fit. These young people fully believe that if they cohabit they increase their odds of success. They also believe that if they don’t marry and only live together, that if the relationship sours, they can break up with each other and not suffer the legal quagmire and emotional trauma of divorce. Yesterday’s blog said that that is absolutely not the case. Property rights in cohabiting cases are a nightmare as are child custody chaos. And the emotional trauma of breakups after cohabiting are at least as painful as a divorce and in some cases even more painful.

Here’s an example to illustrate that point: A young man and woman move in with each other without marriage. She’s got a little boy, say a 2-year old. The young man dearly loves this little boy. The boy’s real father is out of the picture and the little boy takes to his mom’s live-in lover as his father. The two bond over the years that they are living together. When the boy is 7 the couple breaks up. This young step-father has NO rights to see this child. In most cases like this the mother will insist the step-father NEVER see this boy again. Do you know what that does to this little boy? Do you know what happens to that young man?

Maybe he could go to court to fight this under common-law legalities but the fight would be brutal and expensive and more than likely both of these two young people are broke. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the pain of breaking up with someone you lived as though a married person, but not really, for five years. These folk come see me for therapy after the breakup and they are every bit as devastated and emotionally damaged as any divorced person I’ve talked to. They use the same language, they have the same mannerisms, they convey the same hopelessness, fears, worries, self-doubt and sense of failure as divorced people do. Only it’s worse because nobody else understands what the big deal is: You weren’t married!!! So they don’t get the social support they need to recover. Most won’t have the courage to go to a Divorce Care group. They didn’t divorce, right? Who are we trying to kid?

Let’s go beyond breakups and look at how cohabiting fights marital success. Cohabiting without marriage hurts later marital sexuality, marital trust, encourages fighting and arguing, promotes money problems and promotes general selfishness. Let’s look at marital sexuality and trust today:

Marital Sexuality: The whole idea of sexuality in marriage is that marriage is a boundary around our love to protect it and this boundary is good (on this topic of marital boundaries being good see my blog articles “Far, Far Away,” “Guard Your Heart,” “The Advantages of Wisdom,” “Boring Integrity,” and “Wandering Eyes.”). The whole message of cohabiting is we can do what we want without any consequences and sex outside of marriage is not wrong. Cohabiting couples believe that marriage limits sexual freedom. The boundary of marriage is bad. We want to fully express our sexual love NOW. Boundaries be damned. Well, ahh, in case you are not aware, this is the same message of pornography! Boundaries are bad. Do whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. A cohabiting couple might say that they are solely committed to each other and may not be sexual with anybody else. This is the same as saying I’m only going to shoplift from Target. I’m not one those reprobates that shoplifts from Target, Wal-Mart and Penny’s. No siree. Just Target for me. If you are willing to shoplift from Target, what’s going to keep you from shoplifting from anywhere else? What principle will guide your decision?

This is the same problem cohabiting people have. What principle will keep you from being sexual with anyone else when there is no boundary around us to protect our commitment? Just your word? Is that good enough? You must know that your actions speak louder than words? And what are your actions saying? Sexuality doesn’t mean anything!!! Sexuality needs no boundaries. Sexuality does not need protecting. We can do what ever we want!!! Morality be damned. Need I say that my impression is that cohabiting couples have WAY more affairs than married couples? Is it an affair if you cheat and we’re not married? It sure feels that way. (See Dr. Wall’s other blogs on affairs: “Morality and Chaos,” “An Open Letter on Homosexual Temptation and Marriage”,” “Good or Evil From An Affair”, ” The Wickedness of Affair”, “Integrity for Life,” and “The Prison of Happiness.”)

The problem is that sexuality NEEDS protecting! The temptations in the world are so strong that we NEED the solid commitment of our promise to our spouse before all of these witnesses to seal our commitment and to keep the wolves at bay, both literally and figuratively. The wedding band literally keeps sexual tempters away. Your wedding promise keeps your heart in the right place. Do some fail here? Sure. But for most of us, when we married and we stood in front of all those people and said “Til death us do part” we meant it, so that when temptations come we have some fortitude to fight off the wolves.

Marital Trust: I hope you can see how these issues bleed together. If you are willing to be sexual with me when we are just living together and haven’t committed to each other before God and the State, the Church, our families, our friends, and each other, and we’re just committed to each other based upon our word which doesn’t mean anything because our actions are saying we don’t need the boundary of marriage and can do whatever we want, well, yeah, trust is going to be an issue. Marriage isn’t going to help us much here, because we already have a history of saying we can do whatever we want way before we got married. Who are the most insecure people in the world? Cohabiting couples! Why? They aren’t fooling anybody. They are both sexual with each other without marriage. What will stop the other from “cheating?” Just your word? But your actions of cohabiting are saying that a promise before God and a company of witnesses means nothing. So now that we are married why would that all of a sudden matter? Oh, boy, what a mess. Of course, after you marry your spouse is a control freak and he or she wants to know wherever you go and with whom and they are freaking out all the time and this is a bunch of crap and I’m not gonna put up with that….

Hey, if you are cohabiting and struggling in your relationship and wanting to work things out, you can come see me and I’m not going to sit there in judgment over you. If you are doing these things I’m not mad at you. I’m sad for you because I know you are borrowing unnecessary trouble from your future. But I’m not going to pressure you to get married. I’m going to try to help you work out things between you so that you can come to the place where you are secure enough to REALLY give your hearts and lives to each other. That’ll be your choice. I’m about helping couples have a solid foundation. If we have a solid foundation we will have something to build our future upon.


To see the first in this series of blogs on Cohabitation see:

Part One On Cohabitation: Cavalier About Marriage

Dr. Wall starts a series on Cohabitation by exposing some of the unintended consequences of living together without marriage.  It’s not the road to happiness.


Dr. Bing Wall is a marriage therapist with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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