As a pastor, it is not uncommon for me to have conversations with young adults who are living with a boyfriend or girlfriend to whom they are not married. While unusual even a generation ago, today about half of couples who marry have lived together first. Web sites tout the “undeniable benefits of living together before marriage,” and this purported “common wisdom” creeps into most of the discussions I have with others: “We want to make sure this works before we get married.”
On one hand, we should recognize that “living together” (or “cohabiting,” to use the traditional term) represents, for many couples, a step towards deeper commitment in their life together. Most cohabiting couples intend to get married at some point; they just haven’t determined to do so yet. And commitment is a good thing. It’s an attitude that is affirmed by the Bible and Christian tradition.
But the intention to be committed isn’t the same thing as actually being committed, and herein lies the problem with living together before marriage. Living together before marriage often carries with it an attitude of “we’re almost, but not quite, ready to commit.” But this approach fosters an attitude which bases the success of a marriage in whether things “work,” rather than in promises that we make before God and others.
Ironically, even secular research indicates that living together before marriage actually places marriage in a less secure place. As a blog from Psychology Today puts it, “Moving in together is becoming less and less likely to lead to having a future together.” “Living together” has become seen as a kind of test, but the relationship lacks a clear mechanism by which to decide that a couple has “passed the test.” As the months go by without a clear, formal, life-long commitment, the overall relationship takes an ambiguous tone.
The Bible presents marriage as rooted in a public, mutual commitment which brings a man and a woman together in a new kind of unity of which the physical unity of sex is a symbol (Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:4-6). For this reason we find, even in the biblical book which most celebrates the beauty of romance and physical intimacy, the caution that sex has its place: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, 8:4).
The Song of Songs paints a picture of a love that’s like a garden (Song of Songs 4:12-15). It flourishes because it grows inside walls, in carefully tended rows that are kept free of weeds and insects. Our marriages need the same kind of intentional development and care that we give to our corn fields and gardens if they are to thrive. When we have sex outside of marriage, when we live together without marrying, or when we entertain thoughts that lead us in those directions, we are sowing the weeds that will ruin the harvest of marriage relationships.
Test driving may work well for cars. But people aren’t cars. Often, the only things we learn from living together outside marriage are those things that destroy marriage. We learn how to hide from each other so that we won’t “fail the test” and become unacceptable to the person we’re living with. We learn how to hold back from each other, so that we’re only individuals sharing the same space.
There’s a reason, as John Thomas points out, that we don’t expect our community to celebrate our private, sexual liaisons. Rather, we bring the community around us to celebrate commitment. Just as God’s love is expressed to us in the commitment of a covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Eph. 5:31-32), so also married love flourishes best when it is rooted in commitment. Not just an intention to commit, but a real, genuine, public commitment.
So before you move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend, make a public commitment. Invite your friends. Register your commitment with the government. Proclaim before God that you intend to spend your lives together. Don’t just share a household; let everyone know that you are spending your whole life together.
And what if you’re already living together? It’s never too late to admit your mistake before God, to repent, and to seek to re-establish your relationship on the basis of commitment rather than “checking things out.” Embrace God’s promise of forgiveness. Seek the input of a trusted pastor or family member as you move towards renewed obedience to God through marriage. The journey may not always be easy; it may appear to others that you are rejecting “accepted wisdom.” But God’s plan is always better than the world’s wisdom. May you find the grace in him to pursue that plan.