A Christian response to cohabitation
By Irma Fast Dueck
When my husband and I were married 32 years ago, the pathway to marriage went something like this:
- We dated.
- We got engaged with much fanfare from friends and families.
- We were “showered” by friends and families with practical gifts (kitchen items, favorite recipes from family members, Tupperware, towels, etc.) to help us set up a household.
- We “prepared” for marriage with the help of a pastor.
- We were married in church.
- We consummated the marriage on the honeymoon.
- We created a household and home together.
This courtship ritual was a familiar one, and virtually everyone we knew who entered into marriage did so by this pattern with only slight variations. It was a pattern observable both within our Christian communities and in the “secular” world around us. Very few people we knew broke with the rubric.
Today, many of us realize that the pattern into marriage is changing. Living together has in many ways become culturally normative, and it may or may not eventually lead to marriage. There is much less social stigma about cohabitation, making it a very real option for many couples.
Why live together first?
Cohabitation has become so common that it is odd not to live with a partner before marriage. Cohabitation has increased by nearly 900 percent in the last 50 years. Right now in the United States, statistics tell us that are there are more couples cohabitating than are married.
Why is it so common these days for couples to move in together? There are many reasons and here are just a few:
- As a result of contraception and abortion, there are more people today engaging in sexual activity outside marriage. Simply put, the argument goes: If we’re sexually active anyways, why not just move in together? For these, the only “disadvantage” (if it would be called that) to moving in is that the couple’s sexual activity becomes more openly acknowledged.
- There is an increasing gap between puberty and marrying age. Thirty or more years ago it was not uncommon to get married around the age of 21. However now people are marrying at a much older age. As one young adult told me, “’True love waits’ was fine when I was a teenager, but can it wait all the way until I’m 30 or more?”
- Increasingly I hear young adults talk about their fear of making commitments. This fear is not limited to their personal relationships but is extended also to making commitments of faith and to the church.
- Both women and men favor living together as a way of gathering vital information about a partner’s character, fidelity and compatibility. Cohabitation is seen as a way of “testing” the relationship to see about long-term compatibility.
- Young adults and others increasingly struggle to find good role models of married life. Many have witnessed or experienced divorce in their families and among their friends, making them skeptical or afraid of making their own marriage commitments.
- For some couples, cohabitation can make good economic sense, preventing couples in love from making two rent payments.
The reasons that young couples move in together are not always based on reality. For example, the logic that cohabitation can function as a kind of “test drive” of a long term relationship might suggest that couples who have lived together before marriage will have better marriages. But there is no evidence to support this belief, and there is some indication that the opposite may in fact be true.
Some evidence suggests that cohabiting before marriage increases the likelihood of divorce, particularly for those who have cohabited multiple times. If the logic is extended, it would make sense then that divorce rates should be decreasing with all the “pre-marriage” testing going on by cohabiting couples. But there is no evidence that this is the case.
A Christian response to cohabitation
How do we as Christians respond to the reality of cohabitation in our families and in our communities? Across almost all Christian denominations, official church teaching does not sanction cohabitation before marriage. It would be difficult to provide a biblical or theological argument to advocate for the practice. However despite any discomforts we may have as Christians, given the current cultural reality, we do need to find healthy ways of relating to the increasing numbers of couples who are living together. Let me suggest a few things:
1. We can begin by acknowledging the current pressure that people feel to live together. For many people living together simply makes sense, and for Christians that logic may feel somewhat scary. For many couples, living together capitalizes on a guarantee missing from most marriage vows—“If you don't like it, you can bring it back.” While such logic may be discouraging, given the current cultural realities, we need to recognize the pressure there is on our young adults and stand with them as they face the pressures.
2. We need to recognize that not all cohabitation is the same. As soon as one encounters real people who are cohabiting, this becomes obvious. Cohabitation is not uniform—some couples are pre-nuptial and some are non-nuptial. It can be helpful to understand why a particular couple is choosing to live together.
For some, cohabitation might be a “casual” arrangement. A couple may drift into living together. Usually they already have a full sexual relationship, which they see as a normal part of “going out together.” One moves in with the other for convenience or financial reasons, without thinking much about the future.
For others, cohabitation is considered being “cautious.” In this case the couple is more serious about the future. They generally believe in marriage and are tentatively moving toward it but are not yet fully committed to each other. Often they think of cohabitation as a trial marriage, hoping that it will help them to decide whether they are “right for each other.”
Others are “committed” cohabitators. The couple has made the decision to stay together, and they hope that it will be for life. They expect to get married but have not done so yet for various reasons—the cost of a wedding, lack of urgency or one may be waiting for a divorce.
Still others see cohabitation as a kind of “alternative” to marriage which they might view as an outmoded practice for either cultural or philosophical reasons. They are sometimes very committed but are not conventional. They do not think that formal marriage would make any positive difference to their relationship.
If we better understand why a couple chooses to live together we may be better equipped to know how to relate and minister to them.
3. We need to talk about marriage. Where is it that people learn what Christian marriage is about? Where are our young people receiving their formation about dating relationships, sexuality and marriage? Frequently the only time we talk about marriage is at weddings. But if young people are not attending weddings, where will their ideas about marriage be shaped? Now more than ever, the church needs to be intentional in the way it talks about intimate relationships and marriage.
Celebrating marriage and singleness
This may also mean that we as Christians need to find ways of strengthening our marriage theology and practices so that marriage doesn’t simply become another version of cohabitation. One of the things that distinguishes marriage from cohabitation is that marriage from the start is a communal practice.
To marry, to celebrate a love and commitment publicly before God and in the presence of family and friends, is to acknowledge God’s presence and work in the life of the couple. To marry recognizes that one’s life is more than one’s own, that one’s actions affect more than oneself. Marriage is more than a private affair between a couple.
Having said this, it is also equally important that we learn to speak well of singleness. We are prone sometimes to over “couplifying” the church. Unfortunately some churches treat their singles as peripheral to the core or to members who belong to families or are coupled up. Congregations assume that the “normal” single will sooner or later marry and start a family. One of the problems of a strong emphasis on the “traditional” family is that it denigrates and dishonors singleness, causing people to feel pressure to enter into intimate relationships that may not be healthy. If we take the witness of Jesus and the apostle Paul seriously, singleness is a valued path.
It is not unusual for couples once active in the church to distance themselves from the church if they move in together, and this is unfortunate. How can we remain in relationship with them? This is the key: We must care for them while not diminishing our Christian understanding of marriage.
We can encourage those that are cohabiting to move toward a fuller and more complete commitment while holding fast to our central Christian understanding of both marriage and singleness. Our faith communities can intentionally model and teach both a Christian understanding of marriage and singleness. This is the challenge that lies before us.
Irma Fast Dueck is associate professor of practical theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man. Dueck has researched cohabitation and presented on the topic to church leaders throughout Canada and the U.S. Dueck recently participated in a panel discussion at CMU about the church’s response to cohabitiation. Watch the discussion at http://www.commonword.ca/ResourceView/48/18335
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