Image by dynnamitt
Romantic couples and sexuality have long been issues the church has had trouble addressing appropriately. One particular issue many churches and pastors are continually divided over occurs when couples ask them to preside over their wedding. It is the issue of dating couples moving in prior to marriage. Though once fairly taboo in many Western societies, it has become increasingly common over the last several decades. In fact, many see doing otherwise as nothing more than a foolish gamble.
According Family Law Quarterly, couples moving in before marriage has increased by over 1,000% since the 70’s. Non-married couples who live together now make up around 10% of all adult couples; and is continuing to grow. Some studies even show over half of all first time married couples have lived with a romantic partner at some point.
Among Christians, perspectives on the issue cover a wide spectrum including highly opposed, indifferent and active proponents. Most of the classic reasons against moving in tend to be:
-It ruins the surprise, newness and overall significance of married life
-There is a very high probability of starting or continuing pre-marital sex
-There is no real commitment, as would be required with marriage
Among the reasons for discouraging unmarried couples from living together, the church’s primary focus has often been sex. As a result, the church has had difficulty effectively tackling the issue. There are many believers who have no problem publicly speaking against the practice. There also many ministers who refuse to marry couples if they are already living together. Yet, what may be key to the church becoming more effective is to change both its motivation and approach.
First of all, the issue must be reframed from merely being one of morals and tradition. We must include a more practical approach for today’s context. Communicating with people on a level involving their own self-interest often carries more weight than mainly focusing on morality. And in taking this approach, more compelling arguments can be made as to why moving in may not be a wise decision, rather than just a wrong one. But even more importantly, the decision to wed or not to wed should center on the health of the relationship.
The breakdown of old arguments
Saying it takes the significance away from marriage frames marriage as a formality. It communicates that what is really at stake is not the institution, but an ideal of how it should happen. The formality is further reinforced by ministers who entirely refuse to marry cohabitating couples. What sense does it make to ask couples to move out so they can get married; then move right back in together?
Realistically, most couples will simply shop around until they find someone who will preside over their ceremony; and possibly leave that church as well. The fact that they have been living together yet still seek marriage, could be an indication that they want to be right with God. By indiscriminately dismissing them on their living situation alone, nothing is ever known. The top priority concerning whether or not to marry them should always be whether or not the potential and true desire for a successful marriage is present.
Likewise, when sex becomes the sticking point it once again paints the issue as one primarily based on morality. Even though pregnancy and STD’s are very real and practical concerns when talking about sex, it must be noted that the church has generally had a poor track record in combating premarital sex. In fact, there are certainly many more single Christians who are sexually active than there are ones living together. And as with the previous issue, more attention is given to couples doing what should be reserved for marriage than conveying the greater impact it can have on their everyday life.
The Practical Problems with Moving In
Arguing how moving in endangers stable relationships is the argument closest to having a more practical edge. It attempts to address what should be a major focus of the church; a healthy relationship. Talking about the affect moving in can have on the stability of couples digs deeper than morality. The concern should be for the well-being of the relationship rather than protecting the idea of marriage or public perception. Shifting the emphasis from morality to one of care and concern may seem to lower the status of scripture in some people’s eyes. But, it actually makes promotes the Bible as more than simply a list of morals and laws for people to follow.
But first, we will take a look at the two main arguments for moving in together. The first promotes moving in as a logical way to do a sort of “test drive” before making a lifetime commitment. This way there are less curve balls and skeletons unexpectedly coming out at a later point. The second sees moving in as a better way to survive financially, than carrying the cost of living alone. There are certainly oversights which occur in both arguments, which we will now explore.
The “Test Drive”
If you consider moving in to be a test drive for marriage, at which point is the appropriate mark reached? At which point is the relationship considered a failure and should be dissolved? For many, these questions are not laid out before beginning their “test drive.” A common result is this trial period becomes a virtual relationship limbo. With no clear goal of when they are officially marriage worthy, couples have the potential to remain at this level for a much longer period of time than ever anticipated; at least by one of the parties.
It can be tempting to put off pursing legal marriage because a person may feel that they would no longer have an easy out should things go south. Conversely, when couples have invested a significant amount of time, effort and finances, ending an unhealthy relationship can be extremely difficult. After getting this far, the prospect of being alone or having to begin all over again causes people to stay in failing relationships much longer than if they were not living together. What was intended to be a test drive can easily become a vicious cycle of break-ups, make-ups, and stalled progress.
Of all the risks that come with moving in, finances can often be the biggest issue. Although it may provide temporary benefits by splitting costs, the backlash of unmarried couples mingling their finances can be enormous. Though there are laws and procedures in place to address divorce, there are not so many to address the termination of these living situations. Since few relationships end civilly, it is not exactly the best position from which to discuss who will pay the remainder of a lease/mortgage or who gets to keep big ticket appliances and electronics. Whereas in a divorce assets acquired before and/or during the relationship are generally divided in half, an unmarried couple’s breakup can become even messier because these same laws do not apply. Instead, ownership is based on whosever name is on an asset.
Similarly, the person whose name is on the lease, car note, or phone bill becomes the person legally responsible for paying those debts. One person can end up left with a stack of bills and no way to handle them alone. And in trying to legally combat those occurrences, breaking up can become just as messy, if not worse, than a divorce proceeding; not to mention possible custody and child support issues. The financial benefits of living together would not seem to outweigh the massive economic and legal risks being undertaken in the event of a breakup. Most need only to notice who the majority of people on television court shows are to understand this point.
Furthermore, breaking up and being homeless are one in the same for a person not financially situated. This realization creates pressure to remain in an unsalvageable or toxic relationship. All in all, these couples are taking all of the financial risks associated with marriage, lack the same legal provisions and also miss out on the tax and other financial breaks given to legally married couples. Studies also show married couples are both generally wealthier and work more collaboratively towards financial goals to benefit all household members.
If someone is avoiding marriage due to its permanency, having children pretty much negates this entirely; unless of course you are a deadbeat. Children add another reason for couples to remain in unhappy, unhealthy relationships far longer than they should. On the other hand, breaking up may actually lead to another slew of problems. Research shows the probability that children born during those relationships will be raised by a single parent is higher than married couples. But should the pattern of moving in continue, the child’s family structure will have a serious lack of stability. Moving other significant others in later on also exposes these children to people who may not have their best interests at heart.
On this point, research also shows a very disturbing trend about live-in couples. Instances of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children are higher among live-in couples than married ones. Many of us are all too familiar with seeing stories on the news about the live-in boyfriend harming their girlfriend’s child. While these same risks, though lower, are present when people bring children from past relationships into marriages, marriage often prompts people to consider the relative permanence and magnitude of living together. However, this would easily all be the same when considering a person who marries hastily or several times. This then leads to the final conclusion.
For far too long, most Christians stumbled through the dating world without much assistance. The church typically only becomes a factor when couples are near the point of marriage. So given the lack of attention to couples still dating, it should come as no surprise that many are struggling and living together by time they walk into a minister’s office. The aim should not be to simply help people get married. If the church truly cares about family values and stability, it is our responsibility to actively help Christians make wiser, more informed choices long before they reach the alter.
How would most of us respond if suddenly asked to end an unhealthy relationship or make significant changes after we have already made wedding plans? As mentioned before, by that time most feel they have invested too much time, emotions, money and social momentum. And as stated before, most will find another minister who will overlook those problems. However, the hope is if we impart wise, moral knowledge for relationships earlier, the number of couples in that predicament will be much lower.
Because when all is said and done, marriage is not merely about sex, money or convenience. It is a commitment to love and faithfulness to another person for a lifetime. And whether through pre-nuptial agreements, moving in or throwing around the threat of divorce, relationships will always lack some level of trust when one foot is always out the door.
By Corey Dorsey