Practical and enlightened as they are, most people care more about finding love than finding a good deal, and marriage beats cohabitation hands down.
By Auguste Meyrat, January 28, 2019
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.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in humanities and an MEd in educational leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for The Federalist, The American Conservative, and The Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter.