Are you ready for some Catholic hypocrisy?
I had sex with boyfriends before marriage (unfortunately). I also lived with my husband before we got married (before we converted).
And… it’s something I deeply regret.
Living together before marriage didn’t ruin our lives. In fact, it made some things easier.
We put off “the big day,” which was expensive, embarassing (for me), and stressful.
We put off questions about kids, because no one asks about that until after you’re married.
We also had a free pass to focus on our education and our careers. After all, you don’t have to “work on your marriage” if you don’t have one, right? You just get to spend time with the person you love. You’re two people who choose to be together every day you wake up, and there’s no pressure other than that. You’ve got all the benefits of marriage without the politics and statistics of broken homes or social stereotypes.
What’s not to love?
As it turns out, plenty of things.
Here’s my case against living together before you’re married, and if anyone has a time machine, let me know so I can go back to my 15-year-old self and read this aloud to her:
What’s the Big Problem?
Contrary to what my parents implied while I was growing up, living together before marriage wasn’t a guild-ridden and shameful experience. It felt really liberating and modern. It didn’t cause us to be shunned by everyone we knew because everyone we knew would give us the slow, understanding nod about how old fashioned it was to NOT live together.
But do you know what it did do? It caused major delays.
Looking back, I can see how damaging it was to go through the relationship steps without the grace of the sacrament of marriage.
As an unmarried couple living together before marraige, we were broken individuals trying to love each other how we had learned to love. For me, that meant relying on sexual behavior as a barometer of our relationship (which lead to a lot of miscommunication), and for my husband that meant doing his best and hoping it would work out (and being bewildered when it got uncomfortable).
We also kept secrets from each other, thought and acted selfishly, and experienced incredible stress anytime something went wrong in our relationship or in our lives (AKA “Things aren’t perfect right now but we have a right to things being perfect — ACK!”.
Unlike our marriage now, there was no third person, no Holy Spirit, no sense of grace to carry us through the inevitable tough times.
When you live together before marriage, you aren’t getting away with something; you’re missing out on something.
You aren’t avoiding a bad decision; you’re delaying the best decision you’ll ever make.
You’re also depriving yourself and your partner of an infinite source of love and support.
The sacrament of marriage is a gift straight from Jesus. That means that A) it’s important, so hey, maybe you need it even if you think you don’t? and B) Why would you pass up the opportunity to have that player on your team?
Why Is This Happening?
The heart of the epidemic of people living together is not:
- The old fashioned institution of marriage
- The sexual revolution, modern feminism, or social justice
- Religious hypocrites
The heart of the epidemic of people living together is due to each of our individual experiences of brokenness, shame, abuse, and selfishness.
When I considered living together with my husband, I was escaping a traditional patriarchal view of marriage in which I was to be saddled down with kids and used and abused as a mother for the rest of my life. I was taking love and sex (what society told me were “the best parts”) and leaving behind all the baggage.
When my friends live with their partners (and buy houses with them and go on vacations and join finances), they are taking as much good as they can and avoiding as much of the perceived downside as they can. They are leaving the baby and taking the bathwater, with no idea what joy that (poopy, smelly, screaming) baby can bring into their lives.
The List Goes On
My basic thoughts laid out, here’s a list of the common arguments I hear from cohabitating couples paired with what I’d like to say to them:
- “I don’t want someone to be forced to stay with me if they want to leave.” Will your partner leaving you now hurt any less 30 years from now? If anything I think it will hurt more. You can’t escape pain or betrayal by hiding your feelings. If anything, marriage is a way to clearly communicate the expectations you have for your relationship, thus establishing the boundaries that will help it succeed. You have to re-learn that it’s okay to trust someone and to expect things from someone. You have to learn to forgive and be forgiven within your relationships.
- “We’re already married in our life, so why get married just for the piece of paper?” Clearly if it was just a piece of paper, it wouldn’t be a big deal to you. In this case, it seems like people who don’t get married don’t do so “because they don’t think it’s important,” but because it’s important beyond belief and they don’t think they deserve it.
- “I just want to have fun.” Then you’re too immature to be a functioning member of society, let alone have sex with another human being. Go play laser tag.
- “Sex is about pleasure.” Look at your partner deep in the eyes. Is the purpose of their existence to give you physical pleasure? If someone else was dating your partner and they whispered that phrase to you in a bar, would you stand for it? Or would it sound like they were using your partner as a selfish tool for their own gain. Beyond that, do you ignore or otherwise not care for your partner when you’re not having sex? If you’re trying to make this argument, it’s more likely that you have some commitment and honesty issues than that you don’t think marriage is worthwhile.
- “We’re not ready for it.” You’re a wuss. You’re putting something off. You’re afraid of something in your future, and you don’t want to get started. Here’s a thought: whatever’s coming, wouldn’t you want to face it with this person legally, socially, and spiritually committed to you? And vice versa?
- “We want to make sure we’re compatible.” Ah, the most practical answer of all. How much sense this made to me 10 years ago! But all I can say to this is that if you love someone, if you want to sacrifice the rest of your life to their best health, if you would sleep in the hospital bed with them to tend them when they’re ill, and if you want to help them get into heaven… does it matter if it takes you a year to figure out who takes out the trash? Does it matter if you aren’t “good at sex” and you have to learn about it together? And would it really change everything to learn that they have a weird habit or preference that they need to go to counseling for? Looking back on my excuse, this is the same as “We’re not ready for it.” You’re just a wimp and there’s something you’re hiding from. Embrace it, grow, and make the plunge to either separate or get married!
I say these things as lovingly as possible (though I’m sure I’ll get some sass in the comments about being rigid or encouraging people to marry willy-nilly). I say these things as I wish someone had said to me when I signed my first lease with my now-husband and snuck around the adults in our lives. I say this with love and compassion for how much people are suffering (acknowledged or not) when they choose to live together before they get married.
Attention: Major Delays Ahead
As my husband is fond of saying, if we could go back in time we would never stop slapping ourselves for things we said, did, and thought during college and shortly after. Maturity has a way of replaying events in your life back to you and it’s frustrating to think of how right it felt to you at the time.
To all couples who are living together, I have to ask: if you aren’t ready to make this commitment… then why are you letting your body, finances, brain, and emotions make a commitment?
You’re setting yourself up for a lowercase-d “divorce” by not getting married, because eventually you will separate the family unit you have made and you never even gave it the support it deserved through the sacrament of marriage. Or, you’ll stay together in a perpetual twilight state of “two individuals who decide to have sex every now and then,” and that’s kind of like trying to behave like a toddler through your tweens.
While our culture (including myself at age 24 and many many of my friends now) are content to stop with “What feels right,” I think we all need to take a look at anything that comes to us easily. Today, it’s all too likely it comes straight from Screwtape under the label “modernity” and “getting with the times,” and it leads straight to a personal hell of your own making.