More Seniors Cohabitating
Americans are experiencing more active and longer lives than ever before. Consequently, the number of older single adults also has increased, the result of the death of a spouse, increased divorce rates, and never marrying in the first place.
According to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, a record number of Americans — 18 million — are cohabiting, an increase of 29 percent since 2007.
Yet the group with the fastest hike in cohabitation isn’t millennials. It’s those aged 50 and over. The rate has risen 75 percent for that age group in the past decade, up to 4 million from 2.3 million, representing 23 percent of all those living together without being married. The majority — 55 percent — of senior citizens cohabiting have been divorced.
The evangelical church is one of the few institutions in American culture standing firm against cohabitation. A Barna Group study last year showed that two-thirds of Americans believe cohabitation is generally a good idea. A Gallup poll in September found that even 30 percent of Pentecostals believe sexual relations between unmarried men and women is “morally acceptable.”
That compares to 69 percent of the general public that sees nothing wrong with cohabitation. Prior to 1975, only 11 percent of couples lived together before marrying.
“It’s odd that it’s become so much more broadly acceptable to live outside of marriage,” says Scott M. Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. “Mainstream views have become countercultural.”
Wes R. Bartel, director of Assemblies of God Senior Adult Ministries in Springfield, Missouri, says pragmatism is the overwhelming reason older couples choose to live together without benefit of clergy. Out of economic convenience, numerous couples decide to shack up. Some elderly people are wary of comingling assets because they want to leave assets to their biological offspring, not the relatives of a second spouse.
The lack of a commitment to marriage may be spurred by an apprehension of relinquishing financial benefits being paid by the pension or Social Security income of a deceased spouse. Bartel, 69, notes that for an individual aged 55-65, taxable income starts at $25,000, yet a married couple in the same age range must pay taxes beginning at $32,000.
“The Church needs to advocate for change and push for laws that make senior marriage more financially beneficial and pragmatically convenient,” says Bartel, who has been married to his wife, Diane, for 49 years.
Contrary to popular opinion, cohabitation doesn’t mean freedom from financial fears. A 2014 report compiled by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University found that the share of older cohabitants living in household poverty to be nearly five times higher compared to married couples.
Various studies also have shown that cohabitation isn’t as beneficial as marriage for multiple reasons. Cohabiting couples separate more frequently than married couples, reconcile less, experience infidelity at higher rates — regardless of age — have higher levels of depression and substance abuse, and are more prone to physical violence with their partner.
Even so, those who have spent decades attending church may be tempted to succumb to looser societal norms. Various motion pictures, television programs, and commercials all depict single seniors as satisfied while sexually promiscuous. Friends, neighbors, and relatives also may be advocating acceptance of the different lifestyle.
“If people don’t have values, they believe it’s easier than marriage,” says Stanley, author of The Power of Commitment. He points out that one party often is persuaded by the other to engage in conduct he or she really doesn’t think is moral.
“Beliefs tend to fluctuate with behavior,” says Stanley. “One wants to observe a line and the other one without moral boundaries wears that person down.”
The Bible doesn’t declare an age limit on maintaining moral standards. Although pregnancy isn’t a concern anymore, those in their senior years still are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Procreation isn’t a factor for seniors, but scriptural principles are for all generations, not just one generation,” says Judy Pompineau Wick, co-founder with her husband, Wes, of the ministry Young Enough to Serve. “Seemingly solid excuses for living together don’t hold up in light of Scriptures.”
She notes a plethora of biblical admonitions for singles — regardless of age — to stay pure. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:2,9 the apostle Paul advises followers of God to marry instead of living immorally with passion. Hebrews 13:4 proclaims that marriage should be honored by all, and God will judge the sexually immoral.
“While there is not a Scripture saying ‘Thou shall not cohabit,’ there are definitely Scriptures pointing to marriage as God’s design,” says Wick, who has been married for 36 years. The Wicks, based in Scotts Valley, California, are U.S. missionaries with Missionary Church Planters & Developers.
Sexual desire isn’t necessarily the prime motivator, especially for much older folks, to cohabit.
“With longer life expectancy, many times it’s not for sexual reasons,” Bartel says. “People are tired of being lonely.”
Despite all the reasons against cohabitation, its popularity is likely to keep climbing.
“Churches must be prepared to defend the gospel and reach out to people who are making poor choices that can affect eternity,” says Wick, 65. “Grandma shacking up is not a good message to communicate to a younger generation wanting to establish a stable family.”
Stanley, who has been married to his wife, Nancy, for 35 years, agrees that older couples should hit the brakes on such an arrangement.
“How do people deal with the conflict between their faith and their behavior?” asks Stanley, 62. “Do they really want to send the message to their kids that marriage doesn’t matter?”