News ghosts on the march: Thinking about cohabitation and the ties that don't bind

There are times when it's easy to forget how many moral and cultural changes have taken place in North America, and the world, during the past half century or so.

When it comes to news, the tendency is to focus on stories that create the flashiest headlines. In the world of religion news, most of those have focused on LGBTQ issues. How many reporters will flock to the scene when the Episcopal Church consecrates its first trans bishop? Quite a few, it is safe to say.

However, when you look at statistics, even bigger changes have been taking place elsewhere -- among the lives and, from a biblical point of view, the sins of others. For example, if you talk to pastors -- in the most conservative, traditional churches -- you will discover that one of the most divisive issues they face, week after week, is how to handle the weddings of couples who have already been living together. Often the hottest arguments are with the parents of these young, or not so young, people.

This brings me to an interesting think piece in Christianity Today that ran with this headline: "The Three Myths of Cohabitation." As you would expect, CT knows that there are religion angles in this topic. However, for mainstream news reporters, this is a question-and-answer interview that is haunted by news angles -- national and global -- for those with the courage to cover them. Here's the overture:

According to a recent sociological study, cohabitation has a notably deleterious impact on one particular group: kids. “As marriage becomes less likely to anchor the adult life course across the globe, growing numbers of children may be thrown into increasingly turbulent family waters,” writes Bradford Wilcox in Foreign Affairs.
A professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Wilcox and his colleagues recently completed a new study, The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe. The report is the fourth edition of the World Family Map project -- which tracks various indicators of family health -- and is sponsored in part by the Social Trends Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.
The main study included the United States and 16 European countries. “We were looking at the odds that kids who were born to married or cohabitating parents will still be with their parents when they turn 12,” says Wilcox.

At the heart of the interview, obviously, are "three myths" about this widespread global trend in sex, marriage and family life.

There is no way to sum this all up. You'll just have to read the piece (which is what we want reporters and editors to do with weekend think pieces, in the first place). But here are three key bites of content:

Your colleague Laurie DeRose, a lead author in this report and a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, claims that the study contradicts three myths about cohabitation and family stability. What are those three myths?
The first myth she writes about is that “cohabitation is less stable just because poorer people are more likely to choose it. In fact, cohabitation is less stable than marriage regardless of the mother’s educational background. In the overwhelming majority of countries, the most educated cohabiting parents still have a far higher rate of break-up than the lowest educated married couples.”

Next, here come myths two and three back to back:

The second myth is that “cohabitation becomes more similar to marriage as it becomes more widespread,” that in places where cohabitation becomes legally and culturally accepted, it will be just as stable as marriage. But that is not the case for children.
The final myth, she writes, “is that where cohabitation has been a long-standing alternative to marriage (scholars writing on Latin America and the Caribbean refer to a ‘dual nuptiality’ system), further growth of the institution will not affect children’s lives.” Again, that’s not the case.

Like we say, read it all. This piece is, in a way, quite secular. But veteran religion-beat pros who read this are going to spot trends that clearly would have an impact in religious communities at the local level.

In other words, that's where the stories are.

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