According to Lyman Stone at the American Enterprise Institute, America has been experiencing a severe decades-long decline in its fertility rate. In the last 60 years, the population has doubled, but the number of babies born has decreased 11 percent. In some ways, this has been good news regarding teenage parents and poorer households, but it presents a grim picture overall for aging Americans, who have fewer young people on whom to depend for entitlements and company.
The reasons are numerous. Most, including French president-turned-demographics expert Emmanuel Macron, will cite the increase of women in higher education, which takes away time from raising a family and points them towards the work life instead of motherhood. Writer Michael Barone adds that higher education also weighs down young adults with crippling debt and thus discourages taking on the expense of raising children. Along with this, many conservatives point out the decline in religious practice, which is often directly tied to a country’s birthrate—more religious people have more babies.
No doubt all these things factor into population decline, but a much clearer and closer related social problem afflicts America and the rest of the developed world: the growing popularity of cohabitation. For decades, multiple studies and experts have warned of the significant drawbacks of cohabitation: it weakens the potential marriage; it puts the few children born into it at risk for worse life outcomes; and it makes the couple generally poorer and unhappy. Despite this, people continue to cohabitate and put off marriage either indefinitely or altogether.
For those who still believe in the value of marriage, this pervasive trend is concerning. Why would otherwise attractive, intelligent people deny themselves the joys of marriage? Don’t they start feeling lonely? Don’t they want a family? Don’t they want someone to love them and take care of them when they’re old? Have they never fallen in love with someone so deeply that they were ready to spend the rest of their life with that person?
With the exception of young progressives who worry about overpopulation or the encroaching patriarchy (or maybe not even them), most people still want these things. They just do not see the point of marriage. One does not have to be married to have a lifelong friend, or have children, or be deeply in love. He or she can cohabitate and experience these things just the same. Studies might prove otherwise, but this doesn’t seem to matter since people choosing to cohabitate will think they are the exception or feel they have no other choice.
A Definitive Time for Marriage
Long before cohabitation became the norm, marriage as it was traditionally understood was already in jeopardy. With the rise of no-fault divorce, contraception, abortion, militant feminism, and the decline of religious attendance, divorces in America increased dramatically in modern times. The negative impact of divorce on the last three generations (Generation X, millennials, and iGen) has doubtlessly played a large role in people today preferring cohabitation to marriage.
Equally important was the impact it had on the very definition of marriage. Even before five justices on the Supreme Court decided to unilaterally redefine marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges in the name of LGBT rights, most Americans had already come to see marriage as a mere contract between two loving people agreeing to live together and share property. Uniting the two sexes in a complementary arrangement and setting the foundation for children was something only backward orthodox religious conservatives considered. After Obergefell, the popular definition finally became official, both legally and culturally, and the older definition became a form of bigotry subject to legal action (as in the case of Jack Phillips) and nationwide shaming (as in the case of Chick-Fil-A).
Most people who continue to hold the traditional definition of marriage now have to do so quietly while the rest of the world loudly trumpets the new one. To be clear, this new definition is hardly distinguishable from cohabitation. It is nothing more than a government’s blessing on two people who agree to live together and share property. People today may still marry for the sake of placating family members or having a splashy ceremony and party, but they have little reason to marry for their own sakes when they can just agree to live with another person as though they were married and dispense with all the paperwork.
Cohabitation may not be as romantic as marriage (and, as it has become more widely practiced, might explain the death of romantic comedies), but it is practical. A couple can split rent, share responsibilities, and save one another the stress of dating.
Unfortunately, this is where the problem begins. Forming or maintaining a relationship on the basis of practicality may serve well with classmates and coworkers, but this will not do for romantic relationships, which actually do require romance.
Once practicality takes root as the couple’s primary concern, short-term material goods (money, chores, schedule, sex) supersede long-term immaterial goods (virtue, understanding, life goals, general happiness). In the practical arrangement of cohabitation, two people will mutually seek to maximize their own interests through each other. This may have the appearance of marriage, but it is only a parody: the love and generosity one would expect devolves into lust and greed.
By turning people in on themselves and their own interests, the focus on practicality essentially objectifies both parties in the relationship. Consider the analogy some give for cohabitation: just as one would test-drive a car before buying it, one should live (and sleep) with another person before deciding to marry.
What, exactly, are people imagining when they think this? Do they really think they can test-drive a person by living with him or her for however many months or years? Only if they view other people as objects to be used and marriage as a material investment that will likely lose value over time.
For those with a Christian understanding of love, or even just a weakness for romance, this practical setup is at its core degrading and dehumanizing. True love, according the New Testament, should mirror that of the Holy Trinity: it is unconditional, self-giving, and permanent. It is supposed to be dignifying and empowering for those who give and receive it.
However, today’s largely un-churched population does not know this kind of love, nor does it make much sense outside a Christian intellectual framework: unconditional love seems to imply exploitation, not empowerment; self-giving love will leave a person empty, not fulfilled; and permanence will imprison a person’s feelings, not liberate them.
Love, for modern secularists, makes more sense as a consensual exchange of goods between equals—nothing more, nothing less. The greatest expression of love is not a formal marriage proposal, but casually giving another person a set of keys to the apartment.
‘Keep On Using Me, Until You Use Me Up’
Contrary to Bill Withers’s famous refrain, being used by another does not really feel that good. Any relationship predicated on mutual use of the other, whether married or cohabitating, will soon decay. People’s material virtues will fade over time, or one user will grow bored with the other. As this happens, he or she will eventually trade the partner in for someone with more value. Such is the nature of using people as things.
There is also lack of incentive to grow. Married couples have the possibility of maturing and evolving, but cohabitating couples typically succumb to relational inertia. Without the foundation of marriage vows and shared selflessness, they cannot build anything stable. They live “day to day,” and have to shut out the possibility of planning for the future because that future may not exist, and, theoretically, they should have everything they want already.
Oddly enough, one finds the perfect example of this in Homer’s epic, “The Odyssey.” Although Odysseus battles with monsters, gods, and armies, the trial that delays him most in returning home is the goddess Calypso, who wants to cohabitate with him. In Book V, Homer paints a gorgeous picture of the lush vegetation, sweet smells, and Calypso’s beautiful songs, before he contrasts this with the image of pitiful Odysseus sitting on the shore sobbing. He desperately longs for home.
To the modern reader, this makes little sense. Odysseus is living the dream, having a beautiful goddess satisfying his every desire on an island paradise. He does not have to worry about making a living, raising children, doing chores, or even growing old. Nevertheless, he wants to leave it all and return home because he senses his current stagnation with Calypso.
Unlike real life, they both retain their material value as attractive, ageless beings, but neither can grow or build anything together. They have it all already. Odysseus’ subsequent sadness mirrors the sadness of most people stuck in a cohabitating relationship, and he does what they do—after so many pointless years, he finally leaves for something real.
People who cohabitate believe they will have the best of both the single and married life. They believe that they will have the freedom of single people, paying their own way, leading their own life, and having the option to leave, while enjoying the stability of married people, having steady company each night. In reality, they usually have the opposite: they are not free, and it is not stable.
This is because people who have decided to live together cannot simply break up as though they were only dating. Cohabitation is commitment without commitment, and people invest a great deal of themselves (their time, their emotions, and their money) into a relationship when moving in together—even if they say and imagine otherwise. After a few months, or a few years, it is far easier to keep things intact than breaking up a bad relationship, so nothing changes.
Moreover, people who cohabitate for so long have increasingly fewer options available to them once they break up. Instead of dating and meeting different people in their 20s, they loafed around with a subpar mate and let the best years of their life pass them by. Once they seriously look for a spouse in their 30s, they will have to tote around some heavy personal baggage.
Sure, they may find love and marry, but they will have to settle for a person who can overlook the flaws and scars from the last relationship. Their marriage will inevitably be a merger, not a startup; so many opportunities to start making something together (including a few more kids) will have already been gone.
One would think that the slowness of such a relationship might at least carry less stress, but it only does the reverse. The lost time, the sexual entanglement, the prospect of breaking up (or marrying a loser), and the general dissatisfaction that sets in after the passions die down, all age a person. The single woman who remains unattached before finding her soulmate, and the married man who has remained faithful to his spouse throughout his marriage, stay comparatively young.
A few people might contend that their cohabitation really did prepare them for a long and happy marriage. Most people, however, usually come to regret the whole mess, even if they do end up with the person of their dreams. If they could have started sooner or on a cleaner slate, it would have saved them so much pain down the road.
Love and Marriage
Obviously, marriage is a preferable option to cohabitation, but only if marriage is understood properly. Definitions matter more than data, and people only follow what they understand. If people fail to see marriage as something more than a cohabitation contract, laying out superior financial and happiness statistics for married couples ultimately means little will not persuade them to change their minds.
The current definition of marriage, then, will need to change back to the old one in order to discourage the inferior choice of cohabitation. As previously mentioned, marriage should be unconditional (implying a strong level of trust from both sides), self-giving (not self-serving), and permanent. This sets it apart from cohabitation and allows for two people to build something (a family, a home, a life) together. This does not necessarily exclude homosexual unions—if this is what homosexual couples truly want and not just the government’s endorsement of one particular set of values over another.
This new (old) definition would naturally require love from the people marrying. Fortunately, appealing to people’s hearts works better than appealing to their minds. Practical and enlightened as they are, most people care more about finding love than finding a good deal, and they should be able to see how marriage beats cohabitation in this regard.
The greater challenge will be reeducating generations in the ways of love after so much utilitarian hedonistic conditioning. Before making it to married love, people must learn other kinds of love. Every relationship that one has in life has a lesson on how to love better for the next relationship.
This starts with parents, then siblings and relatives, then friends, then finally a spouse. If one is a Christian, he or she should put God somewhere in there as well. This is how one truly prepares for marriage, not by cohabitating or hooking up.
All this would take time, effort, and a fair amount of humility, but if it could lead people towards a fruitful happy marriage and away from aimless, frustrating cohabitation, it would certainly be worth it.