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Netflix show highlights the risks of cohabitation

A focus on self-fulfillment instead of sacrificial commitment is toxic to marriage

A scene from Netflix’s The Ultimatum Netflix

Netflix show highlights the risks of cohabitation
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Last month, Netflix released a popular new reality show, The Ultimatum, featuring six couples who have been dating for roughly two years. In each pair, one person is ready to get married, but the other is hesitant. The show promises to provide the couples with an “accelerated experience to show them exactly what marriage is like.” This includes a three-week “trial marriage” with someone from another couple and then another three weeks with their original partner. Apparently for Netflix, living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed with a stranger is just like marriage.

Unsurprisingly, the show reveals the personal costs of this shallow view of marriage as simply a formally recognized decision to live together for a while. It also provides countless on-screen anecdotes that help illustrate what decades of research has already concluded: Living together before making the lifelong commitment to marriage just isn’t helpful.

The idea that cohabitation is a useful trial experience is certainly popular among most Americans. Premarital cohabitation has preceded more than 70 percent of marriages today. However, recent research shows that cohabitation before marriage correlates with less-happy marriages and higher divorce rates. Women who cohabited with their spouse before marriage are 15 percent more likely to get divorced, while women who cohabited with at least one other partner before marrying their spouse are more than twice as likely to get divorced.

Researchers believe a key factor in these statistics is that cohabitation focuses on comparison and evaluation rather than commitment. This is abundantly clear in the first two episodes of The Ultimatum, where everyone spends the first alcohol-fueled week “dating” people from the other couples, constantly complimenting their attractiveness and swapping stories of what frustrates them about their current relationship.

For most of the couples, their “trial marriage” with a new person seems exciting at first, partly because it’s more like sanctioned cheating than real marriage. They supposedly spend every day growing emotionally and physically closer to someone new with no expectation of long-term commitment. The real challenge comes when the couples return to their original partners for another three weeks of living together. Rather than helping them achieve “clarity,” living with a stranger ends up creating conflict and insecurity. No one enjoys being evaluated and compared to other potential spouses, especially while sharing a home.

When the lines are blurred between cohabitation and marriage, marriage starts to feel like a legal formality that’s easy to dispose of if you find someone better.

Along the way, there are glimmers of hope. Some of the couples seem to learn how to share their feelings more honestly and listen more effectively to each other. The experience also causes several couples to end their unhealthy relationships before getting married. Overall, however, this show is one of many that perpetuates society’s self-focused approach to marriage. They’re all looking for someone who “makes me feel my best” or “checks all the boxes,” and they spend much of the show trying to evaluate their partners.

This focus on self-fulfillment rather than sacrificial commitment is a dangerous force in marriages. In his new book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships, Matthew Fray describes how seemingly small things (like leaving a dirty glass by the sink) demonstrated to his wife that he would rather preserve his right to leave the glass wherever he wanted than commit to a “meaningful act of love and sacrifice.” One woman in The Ultimatum expressed a similar view that in marriage, she doesn’t believe “anyone should need to sacrifice anything for another person.”

This belief is toxic for marriage, which by God’s design is a lifelong commitment that requires sacrifice and compromise to withstand stressful times of significant disagreements. Living together before marriage actually “changes the attitudes about commitment and permanence,” according to research compiled by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the lines are blurred between cohabitation and marriage, marriage starts to feel like a legal formality that’s easy to dispose of if you find someone better.

As society continues to shun long-term commitments in favor of “keeping your options open,” a growing number of people are starting to realize that this philosophy doesn’t work well for romantic relationships. More Americans now than in 2018 believe that cohabitation is bad for society. Though Netflix has not realized it yet, its new show may help show why.

Daniel Huizinga

Daniel Huizinga is a strategy consultant, a speaker on personal finance, and CFO of a nonprofit supporting community development in Kenya. He has published more than 200 articles on business, financial literacy, public policy, and education.

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