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Counseling cohabiting couples

Phil Smidt » Marriage Ethics Counseling

Cohabitation is increasing and becoming more widely accepted as an alternative to marriage, with the result that marriage is being delayed or disregarded altogether. Cohabitation is here to stay. How do we counsel those for whom cohabitation is the expected norm?

If you are a pastor, counselor, or church leader, you will increasingly encounter unmarried couples who are living together.

Many cohabiting couples are not actively part of a church community. They might attend church service, but have minimal involvement outside of that. Counseling such couples is an important opportunity to help get them involved in church community and service. As they begin to make friends and receive support in preparing for life and marriage now, it prepares them for helping others in the future.

Counsel each couple on an individual basis instead of trying a one-size-fits-all approach. All cohabiting couples have unique situations they are facing. However, most will fall into one of three general categories:

1. Willful couples care little about what pastors say because they have a low view of Scripture and the authority of the church. They usually claim to be Christians and will tell us their Christian parents and friends are fine with their lifestyle. They often ask to be shown a verse that says they can’t live together. They need to be taught about God’s design for marriage in Scripture.

2. Stuck couples know it is sinful and wrong to be living together, but feel trapped and ashamed. Most of these couples want to make changes, but need support, encouragement, and a plan to act upon.

3. Unaware couples have never heard the biblical view and once they do, they want to change. They are soft to Scripture and want to be led. They are quite often either not yet Christians or very young in the faith. Often they are in difficult living situations in which separation won't be helpful or practical (for example, they own a house together, are raising kids together, or are new to the city with no family or friends). They need prayerful help crafting a plan, ongoing counseling, and care from the church.

A biblical approach

As church leaders, it is easy to fall into one of two extremes. We either ignore the fact that couples are living together and do nothing, or we heavy-handedly refuse to serve them at all, imposing rules upon them that don’t lead to conviction or changed hearts. We must fight the temptation of these extremes and instead stay on the road of grace and truth.

Cohabitation needs to be addressed boldly yet graciously. We must remember we are shepherding two people who might resist, not trying to forcefully solve an uncomfortable problem with an ultimatum.

Counseling cohabiting couples is an important opportunity to help get them involved in church community and service

Always turn to Scripture when discussing cohabitation with couples. When we don’t, they feel we are offering our opinion, which they can choose to disagree with. What ensues is an argument or discussion that won’t go anywhere.

Where should we turn in Scripture? Biblically, there is no verse that speaks specifically about cohabitation, although Jesus lovingly confronts the woman at the well in John 4:18 (“the one you now have is not your husband”). Although they are important and true, avoid turning to Scriptures that speak about “morality” (“sexual immorality…must not even be named,” Eph. 5:3). Most couples feel those Scriptures don’t apply to their situation, so they dodge the issue or rationalize it away.

But the Bible is still our primary source of guidance for cohabiting couples. When counseling cohabiting couples, focus on two key areas:

  1. God’s design for marriage and relationships
  2. God’s will through wisdom and holiness

God’s design for marriage and relationships

The blueprint verse for marriage and relationships remains Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

The word “therefore” pertains to the fact that God created Adam and Eve as male and female and then joined them together as husband and wife in marriage. In the biblical definition of marriage, a husband moves in with his wife under the protective covenant of marriage. One husband and one wife were meant to live together, not one unmarried man and one unmarried woman.

Always turn to Scripture when discussing cohabitation with couples

Importantly, Genesis 2:24 is repeated both by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:32. There is continuity and agreement throughout Scripture about the definition of marriage.

God’s design for building oneness in marriage is evident even in secular research, which confirms that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce if they end up getting married.

God’s will through wisdom and holiness

In Ephesians 5:15-17, Paul teaches Christians that wise living is God’s will for us:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  (Eph. 5:15-17)

A fair question to ask cohabiting couples is, “What is God’s will for your life regarding your relationship and living arrangement?”

Some questions to ask couples to help them make wise decisions based on God’s will in their life and relationship:

  • Based on the Scripture we have read together, what do you think God’s will isn’t for your living arrangement?
  • Based on Scripture we have read together and even secular research, do you believe it is a wise and holy decision to continue living together? Why or why not?
  • Is your situation unique? Does it fall outside of God’s clear will for life and relationships as described biblically?
  • What needs to change? How can we help you?

Emphasize that we don’t know for sure what God’s will is for them (Will they get married? Should they move out right away?), but help them to see what God’s will isn’t for them (cohabitation) because that isn’t living wisely in holiness and doesn’t meet God’s design for marriage and relationships between men and women.

A tremendous opportunity

Cohabitation before marriage is not going anywhere. It is a widely accepted and culturally approved means of relationship between an unmarried man and woman. Instead of trying to change culture and popular opinion, we want to lead cohabiting couples to experience changed hearts through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

Counseling cohabiting couples is a tremendous opportunity to love and serve them while leading them to a hopeful future in Christ. Their first impression of your church and Jesus might be the interaction they have with you in discussing their living situation. In doing so, reflect God’s grace well to them.

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