As the American culture continues to become more and more secular in its views, growing numbers of couples are accepting and practicing the worldly wisdom of living together before marriage (34). Pastors of the local church are faced with the difficult challenge of balancing the clear standards of the Word of God with pressure from couples, and often from within their church, to “gloss over” the couple’s cohabitation and move them into marriage. Jeff VanGoethem, senior pastor at East White Oak Bible Church in Bloomington, Illinois, has collected his and his colleagues’ experiences, the wisdom of the Word of God, and statistical evidence to counter the secular wisdom of the cohabitation movement and give pastors and Christian counselors tools to use in counseling cohabitants (17-18).


Without a doubt, the most prevalent tool VanGoethem uses in this text to counter the cohabitation movement is a compilation of the trends and statistics that point out the many negative consequences of cohabitation for a couple (65). This evidence is necessary to refute the common wisdom that was promoted for years that cohabitation “gives a superior opportunity to determine whether one’s live-in companion will be a good partner for life” (65). Through surveys and studies he establishes that cohabiting relationships have a very poor success rate, with many short-term breakups, few couples moving into marriage, and a high rate of early divorce for those who do move into marriage compared with those who did not cohabit beforehand (65). In addition, the author notes that “in 40 percent of all cohabiting unions children are present,” rising to fifty percent for those coming out of earlier marriages (67). While living together unmarried forms an unstable home environment for the child due to cohabitation’s frequent breakups, there is the added danger that children of couples that are living together “are twenty times more likely to be abused than the children of married parents” (69).

In addition to those major difficulties of cohabitation, VanGoethem adds the legal difficulties of cohabitation. Due to the difficulty of legally recognizing and managing these relationships, couples that cohabit not only forfeit many of the legal benefits and rights of a married relationship, but they add difficult and complex problems to managing their household, finances, and the eventual breakup (70-71). There is also a “significantly higher rate” of violence in these relationships, stemming from the isolation from family and peers that cohabitation brings, the conflict of individual rights and responsibilities, and the lack of a cemented commitment to the relationship (72). When couples decide to cohabit, the author notes, they often also retreat from involvement in religion and the church. “At the very point when people most need support, instruction, and moral guidance (when they settle down with a partner), they opt out of the church” (73).

Finally, in his analysis of the consequences of cohabitation, VanGoethem reports that there is often a differing view of the commitment and direction of the relationship between men and women when they live together. Women tend to see cohabitation as an increased commitment and a step towards eventual marriage, while men often view it as a convenience and a practicality (75). While these divergent attitudes certainly lead to more conflict in the relationship and a more destructive breakup, it is no surprise that they also affect an eventual marriage (75-76). Studies have shown that couples who marry after living together show higher levels of conflict and lower marital satisfaction than those who marry without cohabiting (76). Likewise, they are much more likely to divorce, and often much earlier in the relationship than those who did not live together before marriage (77).

Another helpful portion of Living Together is chapters three and four, in which VanGoethem examines the motivations for couples to cohabit, as well as the societal biases for it. While he acknowledges that often the couple is unclear on their motivations, since they had never explicitly defined them, he is able to list some contributing influences (44-45). Some of these include cultural shifts, such as “permissive sexual morals, greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles, disenchantment with traditional dating and marriage, the feminist movement, personal independence and autonomy, narcissism or ‘me-ism,’ and desire to avoid the commitment and finality of marriage” (51). The author goes on to relate the history of the cohabitation movement, noting its gaining of momentum in what he calls the “conventional wisdom” in the 1970’s (56). This wisdom stated that living together before marriage was a practical choice for evaluating the relationship and preparing for marriage (56-57).  These conclusions gained ground despite contradictory evidence from the 80’s through today which points out, instead, the negative results of living together before marriage (57).

Chapters six and eight contain the biblical exploration of the subject, as VanGoethem studies the biblical treatment of cohabitation, and constructs a theology of marriage. He uses two primary passages to discuss cohabitation, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 and Hebrews 13:4. The Corinthians passage is Paul’s clear condemnation of an ongoing sinful relationship of a man who is living with his father’s wife, while the Hebrews passage holds to the honor of the marriage bed and the judgment of those who defile it (84, 87-89). In biblically defining marriage, the author reveals the concept and practice of “covenant” in the Old Testament (97). As he reveals the agreement, the stipulations, the blessings and curses, he also reveals that God is called as the witness of these covenants (98). All of this adds weight to the Bible’s treatment of marriage as a covenant, and to the passages that address the covenant of marriage, such as Malachi 2:14-16, Ezekiel 16:8, Proverbs 2:17, and Genesis 2:21-25 (101-103).

Deficiencies and Critiques

Living Together is a valuable resource for pastors and counselors to use in counseling those who have, are currently, or are considering cohabiting before marriage. His theology is sound and clearly stated, and there is a wealth of practical information that is effective in clearly and bluntly refuting the societal wisdom of “try-it-before-you-buy-it” (55).

The text necessarily focuses on cohabitation for both its target audience and specific appeal

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, but an adverse effect of this focus is that it presents a false view of the root problem in these relationships. As noted above, VanGoethem goes through a laundry list of the consequences of cohabitation, including such things as higher rates of marital conflict and early divorce, lower commitment levels between couples, more cases of violence and abuse, and a low success rate for cohabiting relationships (79). While there is certainly a statistical correlation between cohabitation and these results, though, cohabitation is not the causal factor, but is instead a co-consequence of the root causes – a misunderstanding of the value of God’s plan for commitment and sexual intimacy, and a failure to approach relationships with the heart of Christ.

While the text does successfully draw on the Biblical standards for sexuality in chapter six as well as a theology of marriage in chapter eight, it fails to explore the direct and indirect effects of “short-circuiting” God’s plans for sexual intimacy and marital commitment. The reader is guided to conclude that convincing the couple to live apart from one another is the solution for avoiding the consequences listed. However, the “negative realities of cohabitation” – as the author states it – are in reality the products of character flaws, lack of integrity, or lack of commitment, and are not the direct result of sleeping next to each other, sharing a toothbrush, or trying to divide up the electricity bill (64). A couple that struggles with commitment does not do so because of cohabitation, but rather they cohabit because they struggle with commitment. Thus, the godly counselor must address primarily the heart of the issues and not the symptom of cohabitation if they wish to help the couple live a successful married life – and especially if they want to see them come to Christ.

Role in Ministry

This text is extremely helpful for the pastor or leadership of any church to use in setting up guidelines for their church’s marriage ministry, for the personal guidelines of any minister who is called on to counsel and marry couples who have cohabited, or even as a resource for a concerned parent or friend who wants to have a biblical and practical answer to the cohabiting movement in our culture. This resource will be helpful to me in my ministry in several ways. It gives me solid material that I can use to draw boundaries before I am confronted with the issue, allowing me to meet and counsel couples while standing firm on the standards of God’s Word. It also provides quick and easy access to studies and statistics that counter the secular culture’s mindset that cohabitation is a successful way to prepare for marriage.

Perhaps most of all, however, it forced me to consider the cohabitation movement from multiple perspectives. In doing so, I have realized that my task is not to confront cohabitation, but rather to confront the sinful attitudes of selfishness and sexual immorality that lead to all types of weak, destructive relationships.

VanGoethem, Jeff. Living Together: A Guide to Counseling Unmarried Couples. Grand Rapids, MI. Kregel Academic & Professional, 2005. $12.99.