Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.

I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist).  What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.

Care about people where they are

The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).

But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”

I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.

Cohabitation facts

Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married.  It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.

Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not.  Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.

Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not.  Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).

What is the best way to marry?

Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.

It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.

As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?

A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:

  • Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
  • Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
  • Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
  • Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
  • Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.

Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:

The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/

Keep Talking about How Your Lover Is Doing with Jesus (April 2012)

Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)

Go Ahead and Marry (2000)

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16 thoughts on “Let’s look at this cohabitation thing again — You’re married, right?

  1. Thanks for being willing to share your thought process about these things, Rod. It’s enormously helpful, as I wrestle with how to think and engage withe people around marriage.
    By the way, just did a funeral for a guy who had been been married for 60 years. He and his wife married at 19 and 18. They had an awesome, life-giving partnership, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that they grew up together.

  2. I’ve been married a long, long time and I agree with many of Rod’s points. However, I’m glad that our marriage has the protection of both the state and church. When we married, we had a simple church ceremony, surrounded by family and friends who witnessed our making a lifelong commitment to serve Christ with one another. Our reception was in the church basement and very plain, although festive. I’m concerned, though, when Rod suggests, “I don’t think couples need a…document to make a commitment.” I disagree. Couples may not need a document to make a commitment, but it sure helps them to work out that commitment. In our highly mobile society, it’s very unlikely that many of us will remain within the original church community of Jesus in which we were married. And while I take, my marriage vows very, very seriously, I am glad that those vows are recognized by the larger society in which I live. Through the government, that society protects both our rights and government benefits (such as property and Social Security) no matter where life takes me. That legal document is also a good “hurdle” that prevents me from my leaving marriage without a lot of forethought. I wish the church community could provide that kind of security, but for now, that is the ideal, not the reality for many.

    1. You make a good point. The issue might be a Romans 14 and 15 one among the strong and weak. That being said, I don’t think the society knows what it is doing. In a “day of trouble” for marriage I cry out to the Lord (and his people, however prospectively unstable). Love you and your long-term partner Robin :).

      1. I hear what you are both saying, and would like to say that, as a person who has gotten a divorce, it was the church and not the government that made getting the divorce extremely difficult. I suspect for the wrong reasons, but that doesn’t change the fact that getting a divorce is REALLY easy (legistically speaking).
        These days you can get a divorce online for $125. I have a Christian friend that did it. She didn’t even have to leave her home office to get a divorce. In a time where our society really sees marriage as a hinderance to self-expression, or a last resort, or a mere excuse for the most stressful princess-party of your life, it does seem that the church can have a very positive impact on marriage. I’ve found that honesty both on my end and on the part my support system has been the most helpful in choosing to get married and in helping us workout the stresses of sharing a life, new parenting, “roommate problems”, etc.
        Sadly, I don’t think the government is much help in this area, but good friends and family have been a godsend.

      2. Thanks, Rod. And, I certainly agree with you, my hope is in the Lord. And certainly some of my life-long brother and sisters have kept me true to my marriage covenant, even if we don’t attend the same church community! Just glad there are still some components of our secular society that are still working for the good and provide for our protection. I want to embrace all that God has placed in our society that I can support, while along with you and our COH friends prophetically challenge all that needs to be changed.

  3. Oh yeah… so THAT’s why we got married 17 years ago with about 25 guests!!
    I confess that I occasionally get “ring envy” when some pretty friend shows me her rock, but lets be honest: It’s not the about size of the wedding, but the length of the marriage. 😉

  4. Ultimately It’s a matter of an individual’s conscience (hopefully purified by a relationship with Jesus). I have been part of a church that years ago married a coupole with a full wedding ceremony with no intention of making it legal under the law. As I understand it there are many ministers who will do this. Many senior citizens don’t want to mess up their social security or medical coverage by getting remarried legally but need their religious community’s approval of their relationship. I think we have to remove as many barriers as possible from a person’s journey to God.

  5. I dig it! These are some of the same things that Jimmy and I were faced with when we got married almost a year ago. We wanted to be married but we were scared and we were broke. After talking with Nate, we decided to just DO IT! I mean we were already married in every other sense of the word! So we had a CRASH wedding! We planned the whole thing in 2 weeks, got rings tattooed on, sent out a facebook invite and got a wedding gown from Circle Thrift. We crashed a public space and had a ceremony and then crashed a wine vineyard that was already having a festival. It was AWESOME. Traditional weddings are overpriced and create tremendous debt. I love these new ideas and out of the box thinking regarding marriage. Just another reason why COH doesn’t suck : )

  6. In my experience, you need to check off a certain number of boxes to become an adult these days, house, degree, good job etc. and you “shouldn’t” get married until your an “adult”. But according to the church you can’t have sex until your married, and “SHAME on you” if you do. Most people don’t become “adults” until their late 20s these days but want to have sex at 15. It creates a problem.
    Most churches also glamorize marriage and encourage it to the point where you have people that are extremely immature and unprepared getting married (so they can have sex and feel like “adults” by playing house). I don’t think the average church provides nearly enough support or counseling for these young people to help them cope with the inevitable shock that comes with real adulthood, but rather simply tells them “stay married or else”. Then if they fail at it, for one reason or another, they not only lose their hope in the scared union of marriage and family, but feel like they lose God as well.
    I love that Circle of hope offers such a good blend of truth, support, and compassion. I’m still a Christian because of that. It’s something I wish people would stop judging us for and realistically ask themselves what other option there is, given the dichotomy between our cultural expectations of adults and the church’s expectations. You can’t just throw people into a situation like that, leave them to fend for themselves in a society that won’t help them, and then judge the mess out of them for failing at it.

  7. These are helpful, affirming suggestions.
    This makes me think of the single folks, too, that there might be some communal ways to affirm their current celibacy.

  8. Great post, Rod. I agree with much you said. I would, however, just urge you to look into the many studies that are suggesting that cohabitation, premarital sex, and children out of wedlock are actually decreasing and have been for the last ten years. I don’t think it changes anything you’re saying, but it may be pointing towards a cultural awareness and shift back towards treating marriage and sex as more than just arbitrary social constructs

    1. I hear you Bryant. Those studies are just what I study. I hope you are right. But morality by social construct is getting written into law as we speak.

  9. i had a small family wedding at church. the rings/dress/ceremony cost less than $400 total. the ceremony in the forest in braveheart was actually my dream wedding. being employed and ‘established’ as a precondition for marriage is an arbitrary… there is plenty of time to get established together, after you’re married.

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