As Catholics, we all know it is inadvisable to live together before marriage. However, we avoid it because we are called to avoid a near occasion of sin – or the reality of living in sin.
Conventional wisdom, of course, dismisses this idea. In the secular world, living together is the best way for couples to figure out if they’re compatible for marriage. It would be the equivalent to a rent-to-buy option on a home or a lease-to-own on a car. Those two scenarios make sense; and looking at it from that perspective, it becomes a little clearer as to the secular world’s mentality. Many, if not the majority, of my friends lived with their current spouses or are living with their partners. It goes without saying, too, that these friends are not practicing Catholics. They all see it as a wise and prudent move before marrying…if marriage is even an option to begin with.
So it would seem that everyone is doing it, and an article in last Saturday’s New York Times affirms that. Titled “The Downside Of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” it quickly became the most emailed article on the Times’ website. It states that more than 7.5 million people are living with someone they’re not married to. Almost two-thirds of people surveyed believe it’s the best option. Let’s face it, if Facebook and the U.S. Census have a “domestic partnership” option, it’s officially a way of life.
Isn’t it that just peer pressure? If everyone is doing it, it can’t be so bad. Right?
Wrong, according to the article.
What’s known as “the cohabitation effect” reveals that divorce rates are higher among couples who lived together before marrying. But given recent statistics that nearly half the population in the U.S. is single, clearly these couples are not looking at cohabitation as a step towards marriage. And then there’s the fact that if they do marry, they are likely to end up divorcing. Interesting that people still cling to their beliefs when facts prove otherwise.
I admit that I wonder why this is, given the logic of the rent-to-own idea. For one, there would be no surprises. People dating tend to be on their best behavior for a measure of time, whereas living with someone reveals all the idiosyncrasies and secret behaviors. But this idea actually works; it does not seem to be a contributing factor. The cohabitation effect has little to do with the daily life of living together but more with the ideas behind it.
Reasons for doom
One very important factor in the cohabitation effect has to do with how couples go about moving in together. Most of them cited the appeal of sharing rent and utilities. Many of them said they were spending so much time in their partner’s home, they moved when one person’s lease expired.
Some spoke of external circumstances that made moving in together the only option. For instance, I have a very good friend whose boyfriend had a fire in his apartment. She gave him an ultimatum: You have nowhere to go. If you don’t move in here, that means you’d rather be homeless than be with me. And that means I’m gone. So he moved in.
All of these reasons, quite frankly, are terrible ideas. It shows poor planning, financial instability and a lack of rational thinking. So it makes a lot of sense that entering into a marriage that started with something akin to homeless-vs-living-together is a recipe for disaster.
The second factor involves this same lack of planning. When asked, most couples declared, “it just happened” when they moved in together.
Again, bad idea. If there is no discussion as to why this should happen, where it is going to lead, which responsibilities should be shared, and all of the other things couples should sort out before marrying, then all those things are nebulous and vague. And as I tell my writing students, vagueness only leads to more vagueness. “It just happened” when they moved in most likely leads to a marriage that “just happened.” That’s where vagueness will lead. And that’s a bad place, if you ask me.
If couples are suddenly confronted with the fact that one person is doing all the work or that there is no vision for the future, it would certainly lead to a break-up. Interesting facts were revealed in this article: the lack of cohesion and communication in living together was clearly divided by gender.
The gender divide
Women tended to believe – incorrectly – that moving in would lead to marriage. Men, on the other hand, believed that cohabitating delayed commitment. In other words, they would think that living together was enough, and they wouldn’t have to marry. It is the rent-to-own idea, but more of an “I might” to marriage’s “I do.”
It reminds me of what everyone’s mothers used to say, “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?”
Another sobering revelation: both men and women admitted they had lower standards for a partner they would live with rather than a spouse. Higher expectations for a marriage is fine, unless a couple living together doesn’t have those same expectations. It clearly points to the idea that they don’t intend to marry their domestic partner. This is especially damaging if one person – the woman, evidently – believes otherwise. If a marriage occurs, it may be the result of an ultimatum or coercion. Again, bad ways to enter into a life-long commitment.
So what is the lesson here?
Once again, these are not issues for Catholics, but as one commenter on the article stated, the whole of society has a stake in marriage. Healthy, sustainable marriages yield healthy, sustainable citizens – both the couple and their children. We all know what happens to kids that are raised by single parents. I’ve taught them and see the damage done to them. That damage is never undone when those kids reach adulthood; in fact, the cycle tends to keep going. So if society wants to see healthy, happy people, why is the prevailing notion one that won’t likely let this happen? It is yet another set of conflicting ideas, another double-standard, another contradiction passed off as common sense?
In the end, there really is no way around it. Cohabitation is a reality, and there’s no evidence pointing to a decline in this lifestyle choice. The best to hope for is what the author advocated: deep-reaching, far-ranging, long-term discussions before anyone moves in with someone else. The discussions should make it clear what the parameters are, what the time frame is, who is responsible for what – all the things that should be sorted out before a marriage.
The author also suggests that moving in be marked by some kind of formal indicator: an engagement ring, a ceremony, or a gathering of friends and family. Certainly, all of those things make it seem as if cohabitation should be marriage without the legality. And that, of course, brings the discussion full-circle: If you’re going to go that far, why not just get married? Who knows where it would lead? Statistically speaking, not likely to a divorce lawyer.