Missionary cohabitating, Part I

Church people have a name for what happens when young believers get romantically involved with unbelievers.

They call it "missionary dating," usually with one eyebrow raised in skepticism. Most of these relationships involve a good girl who is convinced that, with time, she can help a bad boy see the error of his ways and learn to walk the straight and narrow path.

Times have changed. According to new research, a surprising number of females have graduated from "missionary dating" to "missionary cohabitating."

"My theory is that women are willing to make sacrifices for their partners, once they have become emotionally attached," said researcher Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "They're willing to make compromises to try to hang on to the relationship. Men won't do that. ...

"These girls are probably thinking, 'He's not perfect. But I love him and I can help him change.' Meanwhile, we know what the guys are thinking. They're thinking, 'I'm not sure she is the one I want. She's not my soul mate. But she'll do for now.' "

What is fascinating is that women who say they are deeply religious are just as likely to live with men before marriage as women who are not, wrote Stanley, Sarah Whitton and Howard Markman. Their work is summarized in "Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Non-Marital Cohabitation," written for the Journal of Family Issues.

Meanwhile, they found that men with strong religious beliefs are much less likely to cohabitate before marriage than non-religious men.

As a rule, people who lived together before marriage were less religious than those who refused to do so. Religious believers also said they were more committed to the institution of marriage. This is precisely what Stanley and the members of the University of Denver team expected to find as they interviewed 908 people who were married, engaged or cohabitating.

What surprised them was the sharp contrast between the choices made by religious women and religious men.

Do the math. There are currently more than 5 million unmarried American couples living together. Somewhere, there are a lot of religious women who have taken "missionary dating" to a whole new level. They seem to think that they can evangelize the men in their beds.

Meanwhile, Stanley and his colleagues are convinced that women who want solid, "until death do us part" marriages should be on the lookout for men who have strong religious beliefs, who are deeply committed to the institution of marriage and who, as a matter of conviction, reject cohabitation.

That may sound obvious, but it was in the data. If religious women want the odds on their side, they have to hunt for men who are willing to rebel against the conventional wisdom of this age.

"Given that 60 percent or more of couples now live together prior to marriage," wrote Stanley, Whitton and Markman, it seems that "not living together prior to marriage is becoming unconventional. From such a viewpoint, the unconventional couples who do not live together prior to marriage may be the couples with the more dedicated and religious males."

These unique religious males appear to be trying to "preserve the maximum differentiation between marriage and non-marriage. ... In the context of societal trends that increasingly blur the lines between cohabitation and marriage, this stance would represent the new unconventionality."

Stanley said that his team's research parallels other studies on one key point. Millions of young Americans are terrified of divorce and, thus, want to be careful before tying the knot. Young men seem to grasp that marriage does require major sacrifices, sacrifices that many are not willing to make.

Thus, they use cohabitation as a stalling device.

"Young men and women have accepted the message from their culture -- a message that is not supported by the data -- that cohabitation is a good way to prepare for marriage," he said. "They believe that they are in training for marriage. They are in training, but it seems that cohabitating is training them to develop exit strategies for getting out of relationships, including their marriages."