Since I'm quite outspoken about the need to de-legitimize Common Law marriage, one might assume that I am therefore against co-habitation . In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Not only do I condone co-habitation, I actively endorse it. I will even go as far as to say that any couple who doesn't co-habitate before marriage is inviting disaster. The key, of course, is that marriage should eventually take place. No co-habitation should last longer than two years, at the outside; any longer is a refusal to face marriage, no matter what excuses, like money or "not being sure" are made.
The reasoning is simple; if you aren't sure that the person you've been living with for two years is the one for you, you shouldn't be living with them. It doesn't take that long to know whether you love, admire and respect this person more than anyone else. And if you are unsure at the two year mark, you aren't going to somehow become miraculously convinced as year three or four rolls around. If you are unsure, you have some thinking to do, and perhaps the best idea is to stop co-habitating until you know, one way or the other, what you want.
As for money, if you can afford to live together, you can afford a couple of hundred bucks to get married. Yes, that's right. Contrary to what wedding magazines try to tell you, it doesn't take thirty thousand dollars to get married. But that's another page.
So within reason, living together is an ideal introduction to marriage, and something that couples who are serious about making their marriage last a lifetime should be proud to do.
I don't have a lot of support in this idea, and ironically the largest voice of opposition comes from several web sites purporting to advocate the same values I do, namely matrimony over the various other alternatives. The trouble is, most of these web sites are heavily slanted towards Christianity, and use outrageous statistics which imply that everyone, whether co-habitating or not, will end up divorced. They also mention sex more often than most mainstream adult sites do.
It seems clear that the purpose behind many of these sites is to prevent people from having sex, from "sinning". I do not endorse such a poorly thought out stance, or any site dedicated to reacting, viscerally, to what they perceive as sin. While they may offer interesting statistics and findings to support their own agenda, and while some of their conclusions may ring true, they are engaging in these studies for the wrong reason: not to advocate committed marriage but to condemn pre-marital sex. I cannot recommend this kind of reading to anyone sincerely interested in understanding marriage as it actually exists.
Co-habitation is not an irredeemable evil decaying our society, as these web sites would have you believe. Religions focus on the sexual aspect alone and condemn the so-called freedom and irresponsibility that co-habitating couples enjoy. They claim that our world has lost its moral compass and that all manner of debauchery is taking place these days without the "benefit of clergy." They claim that living together leads to infidelity, promiscuity, spousal abuse, and that an astonishing number of co habitating couples who do marry become disillusioned quickly and end their marriages with considerable acrimony and spite. I can't really comment on something as hard to interpret as statistics, but I will say this: co-habitating is not the problem; the real issue lies with the intentions of the people who enter into it.
Co-habitating couples fall into three categories, as I define them:
(i) The prelude to, or necessary substitute for, marriage:
These couples are involved in a committed relationship, are sexually exclusive, and envision marriage in their future. They decide to live together to determine their long term compatibility because they don't want to marry too quickly and risk divorce. They are cautious; perhaps they are the children of divorced parents, or simply need time to determine whether they can comfortably live with their intended spouse. They fully intend to marry within a short period of time.
People who are financially or legally prohibited from marrying (those with expensive health problems, gays and lesbians, cousins in certain states who may not legally marry, senior citizens who will be penalized by social security if they marry, etc) also fall into this category: they would be married if they could be, they are simply prevented from doing so by outside circumstances and would marry if things changed. They idealize marriage, respect it and admire it, live together because they don't want to be apart but would prefer marriage.
As sympathetic as we may be to their situation, these people are not "married" even though Common Law seems to deem them as such. Most of the people that fall into this category know full well the difference between living together and being married, and don't want to blur the lines between the two.
(ii) The Gun Shy
Some couples are unsure of their feelings regarding marriage and commitment. Some have been in serious relationships before and are hesitant to embark on a serious commitment like marriage again. But for financial reasons, or out of genuine hope and optimism that their relationship may blossom into marriage, they co-habit without having a clear direction they see the relationship going. A young couple may move in together after six months because maintaining two apartments can be prohibitively expensive and because they would genuinely like to know whether their relationship could grow. They may determine down the road that their relationship is over: this does not indicate, as the anti-cohabitation web sites believe, that their moving in together caused their breakup.
(iii) In defiance of marriage:
These couples actively oppose the idea of marriage, and defy what they see as society or family conventions by living together without ever planning to marry. They see marriage as too stifling, too difficult to get out of, too restrictive, too monogamous, too conventional and old fashioned, or any number of other things.
They either don't respect the monogamous nature of marriage and behave more like roommates, or else they emulate marriage by buying homes, sharing bank accounts and having children, all the while refusing to solemnize their union. They may even have the benefits that married couples receive (everything from employer insurance benefits to hospital consent rights, etc) in those states or countries in which common law relationships are recognized as legal marriages. They claim to shun marriage for political or social reasons, yet live as husband and wife and reap the rewards of that union.
The people who fall into this last category are the ones who give co-habitation bad name, the proverbial rotten apples who invite criticism of their lifestyle and imply that everyone who lives together eschews marriage as they do. I don't even really classify them as co-habitors, as such, since they are what I define as Common Law couples.
For those that still believe in the "old fashioned values" of our parents' generation and who think that pre-marital sex and co-habitation spell doom for marriage, I have to question what evidence they have that marriages from these grand old fashioned times were any better than they are today. If you believe books like "The Women's Room" by Marilyn French, or any woman who was married before 1970 for that matter, marriage was a lot more unequal and a lot more work for women in the days before the sexual revolution. People often dated for less than a year - and I do mean dated, as in going to the movies once a week - before they married, and the husband was most emphatically the one who wore the pants. I don't think these couples benefited from not knowing each other intimately before they committed to each other for life.
Christians claim that marriages in which the partners did not cohabit or have pre-marital sex are happier and last longer than those of cohabitors. My contention is that, generally speaking, the divorce rate among devoutly religious people is low anyway, and is no indication of marital happiness. Many religious people feel that they are fated to their spouse for life, regardless of how their relationship may deteriorate or how their lives may change. Many unhappy couples put on a good show at church because they are eager to live according to their church's values. Some religions forbid divorce outright, with no exceptions. Knowing that you are bound to your spouse til death makes your estimation of "happiness" more suspect.
You don't try on a spouse the way you do a pair of shoes, they claim. I couldn't disagree more. Again, the Christian opposition seems squarely directed at sex. For people so dead set against it, they do seem pre-occupied by it.
Sex will play an important part in your marriage, as it does in most marriages. It's not reasonable to wait until your wedding night to find out whether you and your spouse are sexually incompatible. It is much more preferable to have a short, sexual trial relationship that doesn't produce children rather than a lifelong, unhappy marriage bound together by the glue of religion but completely bereft of personal joy.
Would you enter into marriage never having discussed the issue of children? Would you like to wait until your wedding night to find out whether your husband wants children or not? Would you get married without knowing whether your spouse believes in God? If not, why is it alright to get married without knowing how your mate feels about sex, perhaps one of the most important issues that you will face in your married life?
Sex between a loving couple, who may eventually marry anyway, is not immoral. This is the essence of my support of co-habitation; it's different from dating, less than marriage, but a necessary step towards lifetime, romantic marriage.