RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#4 in a series)
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Is living with or moving in with a partner before marriage bad?
Wow. Here’s one that’s going to get me shot at from both ends of the liberal / conservative spectrum.
I can interpret the question in a few different ways, so let me make lay out some assumptions. I was asked this by a group of Christian young adults, so I’m taking it for granted that the question is not, “Is it OK to cohabit without any intention of marrying at all?” Rather, I assume it means, “My partner and I are fully intending to get married. It would be more convenient for us to move in together before the wedding. Is that OK?”
Let me start with some of what we know about cohabitation. Living together binds people in practical ways by making them figure out shared agreements and routines. But people generally cohabit for reasons that have nothing to do with the kind of commitment that’s needed for a stable, lifelong relationship. The overall attitude is often, “Well, let’s see if it works out, and if not, no harm, no foul.”
Indeed, many people believe it’s a good idea to live together before getting married, like taking a test drive before buying a car. But as psychologist Scott Stanley has found, people who live together before getting married are more likely to divorce.
Why? Cohabiting couples often “slide” into marriage. They marry to formalize the relationship: “We’ve been together this long and haven’t killed each other. Might as well get married.” But the relationship was founded on the assumption that if it didn’t work out, they were free to leave. What’s missing, in other words, is the conscious decision to set that assumption aside, and to commit to the other person and to the relationship for life.
I realize that this situation is different from what’s being asked in the question. But I bring up Stanley’s research to make a point: living together binds people in ways that may go unnoticed. That goes double if a sexual relationship is involved.
Yes, I can easily envision two people who are engaged to be married and deeply committed to each other moving in together before their wedding, following through with the ceremony, and having a stable and happy marriage after. (By the way, don’t kid yourself: there are couples in your church who did just that.) And to be perfectly frank, I would have a hard time making an airtight biblical case for forbidding such a scenario, depending on whether sex is part of the equation.
But here’s my concern. It’s twofold. First, a bit of calm reflection (not to mention a pile of psychological research) reveals that we as human beings are often spectacularly bad at knowing our own minds and predicting our futures. We’re quick to say, “Everything will be fine,” not on the basis of any good evidence, but merely as a projection based on how we feel at the moment and what we want to be true. Put simply, we can be incredibly naive in self-serving ways.
Second, I don’t think of a wedding as merely formalizing what the couple feels toward each other. Marital commitment is more than just an individual or personal feeling. By proclaiming their commitment to one another in a public ceremony, a couple invites their wedding guests to participate in that commitment, to help them uphold and nurture it.
Put those ideas together. When we want something, we have all kinds of ways to rationalize why it’s OK to have it, even if we have doubts. And I do believe that there is a risk involved in living together before a couple’s felt commitment is ratified by a community of witnesses. Sliding begins to take the place of deciding.
Bottom line: marriage is too important of a commitment to make decisions on the basis of what’s OK. The challenges are plenty. Why risk starting off on the wrong foot? Why not decide on the basis of what’s best?