Cohabitation Nation: Sliding v. Deciding for Marriage

One of the most common concerns young people encounter as they begin to pursue adult relationships is the question of cohabitation.

Living together before, or instead of, marriage has not only become acceptable in the last 30 years, it has become the norm.  According to the US Census bureau, there was a 72% increase in unmarried couples living together between the years from 1990 to 2000.  Further, about 54% of women have, or will have, lived together with a boyfriend at some point in their lives.  One recent survey of high school seniors found that 64% of young men and 57% of young women agreed with the statement,  “It is usually a good idea for a couple to live together before getting married in order to find out whether they really get along.”

All of this is to say that young adults are experiencing more pressure than ever to experiment with alternatives to marriage.  This, despite the wide body of research that says that cohabiting relationships are less stable and less satisfying than marriage, and actually increase the risk of divorce significantly if the cohabiting couple ever decides to pursue marriage.

This last point presents the best opportunity for parents and chastity educators to convince young people that remaining chaste until marriage is a better option.  New research from the University of Denver has discovered some of the reasons that cohabitation offers a poor preparation for marriage.


In the report, Sliding v. Deciding, Dr. Scott Stanley argues that there are significant differences in the process by which cohabiting and non-cohabiting couples enter into marriage. And this process, itself, plays a significant factor in determining the stability of the future marriage.

Non-cohabiting couples tend to proceed toward marriage in a conscious way.  Each stage of their evolving relationship represents a conscious choice that increases commitment on the one hand while intentionally limiting options on the other hand.  For instance, the decision to move from casual dating to exclusive dating, to engagement, to marriage, represents conscious, deliberate decisions to limit how much time I spend with others and how much of myself and my time that I give to my beloved.  Because I have consciously and deliberately chosen this path for myself, I am more satisfied with the result (because I don’t feel like it “just happened to me”  I actually chose it) and I am more invested in its future success.

By contrast, the cohabiting couple tends to “slide” toward marriage instead of deciding upon it.  Rather than proceeding through deliberate and public stages of increased commitment (exclusivity, to engagement, to marriage), cohabiting couples tend to get married because they’ve been together a while and other people just expect them to.  It’s seen “as the thing that happens next” as opposed to a conscious step that requires investment and commitment.

As a result, many cohabiting couples feel suffocated by the commitment and limitations marriage places upon them.  They didn’t consciously choose to limit their outside commitments.  They didn’t consciously choose to give more of themselves to each other.  It just “sort-of happened.”  As a result, they often feel trapped by the exclusivity and work that marriage requires.



I was recently working with a woman whose daughter was cohabiting with her boyfriend.  The couple had been together for about 5 years and living together for 2 of them.  My client had been encouraging her daughter to live apart from her boyfriend with no success.  In the last few months, the couple had been discussing the possibility of marriage, largely because their friends and family had been asking them about the possibility.   Fortunately, when the daughter approached their parish priest about getting married, he told her that he wouldn’t marry them unless she and her boyfriend agreed to live apart until the wedding.

The couple was upset, but agreed to comply with the pastor’s request and the daughter moved back in with her mother. A few weeks later, the daughter went to her boyfriend’s apartment to pick up some of her things and walked in on her boyfriend and another woman in flagrante.  In the argument the followed, the boyfriend argued that he had felt “trapped” into the marriage plans and he “didn’t know how he felt” about her and “needed time to think.”

The girlfriend was mystified.  “What does he mean he ‘needs time to think!’  We’ve been together for five years!”  What the young lady didn’t realize was that that young man said something very profound.  Yes, they had been together for five years, but during that entire time, he had never been required to actually be intentional and think about the relationship.  They had allowed their feelings to carry them along for the entire time.  Finally, presented with the opportunity to be conscious about their relationship, the young really didn’t know what he thought about her and committing to her for the rest of his life.

This scenario, though dramatic, perfectly illustrates the benefits of chastity.  Chastity requires a couple to be conscious and intentional about every step of their relationship—leading up to and even after marriage.  Most people think of chastity as merely refraining from inappropriate sexual contact.  But chastity really means exercising one’s capacity for loving the right person in the right time and in the right way. In other words, the beauty of chastity it that is forces one person to be conscious about his or her relationship to another.  And according to the most recent studies on the matter.  That makes all the difference.


Dr .Gregory Popcak is the author of over a dozen books including For Better…FOREVER! and Holy Sex!  He directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute which offers telephone counseling for Catholic individuals, couples and families.  Call 740-266-6461 or learn more online at

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit

  • Randy

    One advantage to deciding vs sliding is that with deciding the two participants are much more likely to be on the same page. Sliding relationships often see the two people having very different expectations. One sees sex and/or living together as a precursor to marriage. The other just does not. Often there is the idea that being explicit about expectations is bad. That you put pressure on people and scare them off. So people just wait around for the other person to come to a point where they want marriage or children and they are never going to get there.

    • pittsburgh mama

      I agree about not being explicit about expectations – it boggles my mind the things that a person is willing to do with another, like have sex with them, but never have the conversation about “what do we do if we get pregnant?” first.

      My husband and I did cohabitate, and that’s a decision I know I’ve come to regret (I get a wishy washy response from him on it on the few occasions it’s come up.) We were already engaged, though, and had a definite plan for how we were going to proceed – live together until we were both done with graduate school, and then get married. Honestly, I think the only thing holding us back from getting married sooner was the perceived expense of a wedding (which was pretty silly, as we ended up being just as broke when we got married as we were when we first shacked up.) I wonder what kind of data exists on that kind of cohabitation situation vs. getting married – the couple who plans to get married, but is putting it off for x,y,z reason.

    • Andrea Veitch

      Randy, this is so true. I and my friends did the whole living together thing when we were younger. The amount of women who were waiting for a ring to be put upon their finger. The difficulty with the living together culture is that most don’t talk about the marriage part, it is an unspoken assumption on behalf of the woman. She the finds that she has spent a number of years with a man who never gave her the promise of marriage whilst her biological clocked ticked.
      The thing is I would say that a lot of the time it is women that push for commitment and men go along with cohabitation because it’s easy and comfortable. In my experience when men have met the one they propose pretty quickly.
      I know this sounds stereotypical, but I cannot ignore the amount of friends crying on my shoulder and rapid engagements of the partners that they had split from.

  • Beccolina

    I’ve found that, once a young couple has decided they’re “in love,” it’s too late to try and talk them out of cohabitation. Even if the family has raised their son or daughter with the teachings about chastity and waiting until marriage, much depend on what the bf or gf has been taught or believes. My grown stepdaughter is living with her bf. They have a 7-month baby boy now. There’s lots of talk about marriage, has been ever since they started dating, but no action. I think it’s just easier to keep on this way, unmarried, than taking the steps to talk to the priest. We worry a lot about how stable the relationship actually is, and what the future holds for our grandson.

  • Anonymous

    I co-habituated for 2 years with my boyfriend. I now regret it a lot, at that time I was far away from God. We had some problems and ended up separating, I seeked God and a month after our separation, my boyfriend and I reconciled but I refused to go back to live with him and wanted to remain chaste until marriage. My plans were a surprise to him and he found it hard to deal with in the first couple of months of being bf and gf and not living together. I don’t know where we stand, we hardly see each other because of our different working schedules, but keep in contact daily. We attend Holy Mass together on Sundays. I found myself thinking the same thing as the girlfriend mentioned in the article, we’ve been in the relationship for almost 4 years and feel we should have been married by now or actually be engaged. The times that I have brought up the topic of marriage he has said that if we had gone to church or seeked God while living together, we would’ve never separated and we would’ve been married by now. That doesn’t make sense to me. My bf is now seeking God and says that until God “says” we’re ready we’ll be getting married. I don’t know what to do from here. I’m trying to be patient and I definitely don’t want to rush into marriage if he’s not the right person for me. HELP Dr. Greg! I’m a revert Roman Catholic and he has no religion background but is new to the church since Easter 2013.