Last summer I wrote a paper on gay marriage and church/state relations for an ethics class. I’m not sure the paper was any good (though I did get an A), so at least for now, I will refrain from posting it. What I would like to post about is a semi-related topic which I pondered off/on while doing my research for the paper: cohabitation.
First I should clarify that I have pretty darn traditional views about sex. And yet, I find myself very unsatisfied with the way Christians deal with cohabitation, particularly among those who are quite committed to each other—possibly engaged or even eligible for “common law marriage” in some states.
Here’s the way that conversation typically goes, in my experience: Mildred and Maurice are both twenty-seven. They have been living together for a couple of years and dating for three. About six months ago, Mildred and Maurice finally decided it was time to take the next step in their relationship by getting engaged. They plan to get married in another twelve months or so, though they are just getting started planning their wedding. One day, their friend Jean-Claude makes them curious about Jesus and they decided to start going to church with him, the first time either has attended a religious service in some time. After attending several weeks, however, they realize the people at this church are nothing like their more liberal Christian friends from work. These evangelicals seem surprised and upset that they are living together, and in fact, some have even insinuated that they should find separate apartments until their wedding. Wondering if this church is for them after all, they ask their friend Jean-Claude for his thoughts on the matter.
The standard response would be for Jean-Claude to tell Maurice and Mildred to stop living together. What if Maurice wants to stop living together but Mildred doesn’t want to? Then they might even be advised to break up—after all, isn’t Mildred showing she doesn’t care about Jesus? If Maurice wants to do what’s right in God’s eyes, he obviously needs to be rid of her… right?
I’ve come to think this is the entirely wrong approach, partly based on my paper on gay marriage. Among the many arguments I gave for why Christians (even if they don’t condone homosexuality) might support (or at least not oppose) gay marriage, I argued that the state is not what defines the true meaning of marriage for Christians. This got me to thinking about what did make marriage valid, and I came to see the most important components as commitment, sex, and public recognition.
I decided, even, that public recognition does not demand a church wedding or a legal marriage certificate, though those tend to be meaningful (and of practical use) in our society. The most important thing to me is simply a promise to each other. That promise should be sealed with the togetherness of sex and made known to the wider community. Of course, there could be exceptions to either of those like being unable to have sex due to a physical disability or being unable to make one’s marriage public because of significant threats of danger that would ensue (perhaps because one of you is being hunted by aliens and they will come after your spouse if they find out you got married—I really don’t know). I’m not off to invalidate anyone’s relationship, just saying that generally, these three things go well together and that under typical circumstances, I think they are all essential elements.
In my mind, then, what Mildred and Maurice need is to rethink where they are in their relationship and where they want to be. Since physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, and level of commitment are meant to track throughout a relationship, they should examine where they are on each of these. If they are finding their level of commitment and/or emotional intimacy is lagging behind their marriage-level sexual involvement, perhaps they should reconsider their situation. But if they really feel just-about-married anyway—only lacking that final ounce of commitment and public recognition of their relationship’s permanence—I think the only logical thing to encourage is that they stop being “almost married” and simply be “married.”
Of course, this brings us to what might be keeping them from marrying earlier to begin with. Either they don’t really feel ready for commitment or they feel they need more time or money to pull off a nice wedding or they feel they need more money to start their married life “right” or they want to wait until a date that all of their family and friends can be there. Responses to these issues will have to wait for a second post.
For the present, I will stop with this: In a hyper-individualistic culture that is often afraid of lifelong commitment, whenever the church encounters a couple that is “almost married,” I think our call is to help them grow into their marriage, not pull them apart. Maurice and Mildred have been living intertwined lives for some time now and probably feel somewhat married already. The answer to the current disconnect between their sex lives/living situation and their technical (and psychological) marital status is not to slap them on the hand for their connection and increasing commitment, but rather to celebrate their relationship and support them as they make that last step together, a step that, in my mind, need not wait twelve months.