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Cohabitation: Lessons From Across the Pond
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One thing sociologists have seen is that the U.S. tends to follow many of the same trends the U.K. follows. Maybe that has to do with our unique history and ties to Britain, or maybe that is simply a function of our similar sociological make-up.

In any case, often as goes the U.K., so go the U.S.

With that in mind, a recent study of the state of marriage in the U.K. bodes poorly for us. According to research done by the Marriage Foundation, couples who live together (“cohabitating”) now account for over half of family breakups, although they make up only 20% of parents.

In other words, the rate of family disintegration is markedly higher in cohabitating couples compared to married couples.

In the U.K., the number of cohabiting couples has reached almost 1.3 million – up from 950,000 in 2006, while the number of married parents has remained relatively stable at 4.8 million.

Harry Benson, Research Director of Marriage Foundation, commented: “The great paradox of UK family statistics is that family breakdown has been going up for years while divorce has been going down for years. The reason – as repeatedly shown by Marriage Foundation research – is the trend away from relatively stable marriage and toward relatively unstable cohabitation.”

And if only it were just the adults who deal with the aftermath.

Benson continues, “The government’s own research shows that children not living with both natural parents are more likely to have health and education problems and a lot more likely to experience poverty.”

“We have sleepwalked into an epidemic of family breakdown that already affects nearly half of our teenagers. How much more research do we need before we heed the wake-up call to treat unmarried cohabitation as a public health issue?”

That’s very interesting, isn’t it? After all, we have been beating the “divorce is the main problem” drum for a long time. Now, don’t get me wrong; no one likes divorce. But, at least in the U.K., the problem isn’t divorce.

The problem arises from couples who live together, yet have nothing really binding them – no commitment that leads them to work on their marriage during difficult times.

Sir Paul Coleridge, founder and chairman of Marriage Foundation, said, “Whenever family breakdown statistics are discussed people assume it means married couples divorcing, but that is not the real mischief.”

“The real mischief is that separating cohabiting as opposed to divorcing couples are four times more likely to split up,” he continues. “This is the driver of the national tragedy of mass family breakdown.”

“The divorce statistics are stable and have changed very little over the last ten years. On the other hand the statistics for cohabiting splitting up get relentlessly worse, year by year.”

Perhaps if we don’t have the courage to bring attention to the difference in outcomes between married and cohabiting couples we will end up in the same place as the U.K.

Sure, the data is driving a lot of conclusions here.

But, this issue is more than about data and outcomes. It is also about the couple’s understanding of and relationship with God.

We need to be clear about God’s view of relationships. And we must be able to put resources into helping couples understand the importance of commitment in the stability of a relationship.

Or, so it seems the “marriage is just a piece of paper” argument loses steam when children’s lives hang in the balance.