When I was a young girl, I thought I’d be happily married to a nice Christian husband by my mid-twenties. We’d have a modest, but comfortable home, we’d attend church together, and the blessings in our lives would be based upon our mutual decision to follow Christ. It all seemed so spelled out for me. It’s what the Christian books promised: if I just prayed and waited long enough for the perfect man to walk into my life, God would provide.
How quickly that fairy tale fell apart – and I’m so glad it did.
Over and over again, my world gets turned upside down as I explore beyond the confines of Evangelical Christian expectations when it comes to romantic relationships. As I navigate my twenties, I am thankful I ended my “Ring by Spring” engagement my senior year of college, and I pray to know myself fully so that I can one day feel comfortable enough to fully know someone else.
If you Google “living together before marriage,” you’ll find all sorts of opinions, statistics, and reports. According to the Institute of Child Health and Human Development, cohabitation is the norm nowadays, with more than 50% of couples moving in together before marriage. Christian websites naturally warn couples against cohabiting, while mainstream news outlets offer a more holistic approach based on surveys, available data, and anecdotal evidence.
While cohabitation has worked for many, it’s also led to marriages that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, oftentimes leading to divorce. So what’s the answer? Like all debated topics, we need to dig a little deeper instead of treating it as a black and white issue.
In a report titled “Does Premarital Cohabitation Raise Your Risk of Divorce?” by professor Arielle Kuperberg of UNC Greensboro, Kuperberg states something so obvious that it just might be all we need to solve this debate:
“It turns out that cohabitation doesn’t cause divorce and probably never did,” she says. “What leads to divorce is when people move in with someone – with or without a marriage license – before they have the maturity and experience to choose compatible partners and to conduct themselves in ways that can sustain a long-term relationship.”
I couldn’t agree more with Kuperberg’s statement, as I’ve seen couples crash and burn while cohabiting, and others move on to very strong, committed marriages. And yet, the Christian right still shames couples for living together before marriage, as if they’re already heading down a path toward divorce. Because the church doesn’t approve of this behavior, it remains yet another heavily avoided topic, aside from the admonishment: “don’t do it.”
Evangelical giants like LifeWay and Focus on the Family do an excellent job of sounding the alarm when it comes to cohabitation. Focus On The Family offers this warning in their online marriage guide:
“Unfortunately, research shows that cohabitation is correlated with greater likelihood of unhappiness and domestic violence in the relationship. Cohabiting couples report lower levels of satisfaction in the relationship than married couples. Women are more likely to be abused by a cohabiting boyfriend than a husband. Children are more likely to be abused by their mothers’ boyfriends than by her husband, even if the boyfriend is their biological father. If a cohabiting couple ultimately marries, they tend to report lower levels of marital satisfaction and a higher propensity to divorce.”
It’s hard for me to believe that dissatisfaction in relationships, child abuse, and domestic violence are the symptoms of cohabiting, which is how Focus on the Family sensationally frames this statement. And that’s the problem. Christian publications thrive on these unfortunate outcomes as blanket “proof” that they are right and the “secular” world is wrong. Are we to believe that if the couples cited in the research above had rings on their fingers, they would have magically gotten along better and eliminated their abusive behaviors?
The Christian fear-mongering about living together before marriage comes down to one thing: premarital sex. If you’re living together, you’re obviously having sex. And that’s just something Christians don’t want to talk about. Beyond that, conservative Christians don’t seem to care much about the health of your relationship, so long as you’re both following a “biblical” standard. Sadly, they dismiss the numerous other factors that make a relationship successful, or make one fall apart.
The problem with a fear-based mandate against cohabitation and premarital sex is that it ignores the very complicated nuances of human relationships, and turns marriage into a shallow partnership based on mutual religious beliefs and sexual repression, instead of deep friendship and respect for each other’s differences. It fails to recognize that there are no guarantees in marriage, even if you did everything “right” during all your Christian premarital counseling. It also ignores the number of unhappy marriages the church has fostered by convincing young adults that dating outside of the Christian circle is “playing with fire,” and that premarital sex damages your soul in some kind of eternal, irreversible way.
These dangerous mindsets have led to young couples marrying in order to obey a particular doctrine, instead of finding out what they really want and making adult decisions for themselves. No wonder so many Christians are getting divorced. If the church wants to tell people how to conduct their relationships, then it needs to take responsibility for the amount of brokenness it has left in its wake in the name of God.
I am 26 years old, and I am not married. I belong to a generation where an unprecedented amount of people will stay single well into their 40s. Where 25% of us will never get married, ever. My generation has taken a step back. We question everything. We see how traditional ways of life don’t always result in the outcomes they promise. We see our parents divorcing and our LGBT friends and family still scared to love the person they connect with most. We see minorities ignored and the outcasts of society mocked, all for the sake of preserving the status quo. We are frustrated. Jaded. Is anyone truly happy anymore? We want to feel at peace, but we fear the pain of a marriage going awry. We fear we’ll be trapped in a life we didn’t choose and have to gut it out like our grandparents did. So we tiptoe around commitment to protect ourselves because divorce is the last thing we want to experience. We cohabit because life already told us it won’t work out anyway.
So, is living together before marriage a sin? No, I don’t think so. I simply think we’re worrying about the wrong issue. If we really want to be fundamental about this, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say anything about cohabiting, therefore, we do not have clear verse to refer to even if we wanted.
Living together is not easy. I have done it before. And it ended not because it was sinful, but because we as individuals were not on the same page with what we wanted out of life. He wanted marriage, and I wasn’t so sure (which is funny, because the Christian books always told me that as a woman I would be taken advantage of in this situation and I’d be the one longing for an engagement ring).
Whether cohabiting works is really dependent on one thing: commitment. What is marriage, at the end of the day? It’s not about a ring, a ceremony, or a cute website on The Knot. It’s about two people who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in life – giving up themselves – in order to create a life together built on trust, respect, honesty, emotional support, intimacy, and unconditional love.
If both parties are on the same page and emotionally mature enough to take on the responsibility of caring for another human being, then chances are the relationship will work. The official title of being “married” does not solidify that commitment. It is a choice your heart must make every day when you wake up – the choice to give, to serve, to put someone else’s life before yours. Whether you are cohabiting, married, or long distance lovers, have you internally made that decision? I know I haven’t been able to yet, but I know it’s what I want, and I finally have the freedom to chase after it without the constraints of religious expectations.
About Allison Lynch
Allison Lynch is a twenty-something who lives and works in Boston as a marketing communications professional in the health & fitness industry. When she’s not writing, she’s either training for her next competitive running event, or volunteering at the House Rabbit Network, a shelter for abandoned, domestic rabbits. Her goal in life is to use writing and art as ways to connect with others, and to help women feel empowered through the strength and beauty of their unique bodies. Read more of her posts for Unfundamentalist Christians here.
Author photo by Shef Reynolds / Article photo via Unsplash.