More and more couples live together either instead of marriage or as a preparation for it.
What should we make of this social phenomenon? Just what is the difference between marriage and cohabitation and in, any case, what’s wrong with living together? Holy Trinity vicar, Gary Jenkins, has written a Grove booklet which attempts to address some of these issues.
You can read extracts below (or you can buy a copy of ‘Cohabitation: A Biblical Perspective) for £2.50 (post free) from the Grove Books website.
INTRODUCTION TO ‘Cohabitation: A Biblical Perspective’
'It's a bit like membership of a club or gym. You try It out for a bit and, if it's a hit, you become a life member'
This is how a young woman summed up her view of marriage in a recent article in the Daily Mirror about 'living together'. Like many people today she wants to try marriage on for size before she definitely commits herself to it-and cohabitation offers her the opportunity to do just that.
A real revolution has occurred in popular thinking about marriage. To use an analogy from the world of Christian initiation, the average wedding is now more like a service of confirmation than a christening. The traditional order of things has been the wedding, first, followed by moving in together. Under the new arrangements moving in together comes first and the wedding, like confirmation, comes much later and, like confirmation, its function is not to start something but to ratify publicly and celebrate an existing relationship of faith and commitment.
What should Christians make of living together? Should we condemn it because sex outside marriage is wrong? Should we condone it because it is essentially the same as marriage? Or should we do our best to ignore it when erring cohabitants come to the church to book a rather belated wedding? I am not in favour of any of these options, since none of them in my view is based on a sufficiently broad perspective of the relevant biblical material. Many aspects of biblical teaching are relevant to the issue and the aim of this booklet is to point to some of these as the basis for a distinctively Christian understanding of the widespread modern social phenomenon of living together.
The rest of this chapter considers some of the background facts about cohabitation; the next two chapters look at the biblical evidence; and chapter four offers some pastoral applications.
How Common Is Cohabitation?
It is often said that marriage is as
popular as ever and, indeed, the total number of weddings each year remains
remarkably high. However, 'this figure is kept high by the growing number of
second, and even third, marriages. In fact the number of marriages per 1,000
eligible bachelors and spinsters declined by about 40% in the eleven years from
1 973 to 1984. Reliable statistics are
hard to come by, but it appears that during the same period the incidence of
couples living together outside marriage has increased. In 1981 only 8% of
single women aged 1 849 were cohabiting; by 1988 this figure had increased to
20%.~ A survey of clergy in
By 1991 the Family Policy Studies Centre were able to report 'nowadays it is virtually the majority practise to cohabit before marrying.'
The incidence of cohabitation varies greatly across Europe with 90% of Swedish couples cohabiting before marriage compared with less than 2% of Italian couples.2 Cohabitation is most common in the countries of northern and western Europe and is least common in eastern Europe and the predominantly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean.
What Is Cohabitation?
Cohabitation is a slippery term. It can simply mean any two people 'living together' under the same roof. However, we shall use it far more restrictively as 'any unmarried, heterosexual couple who consistently share a common residence and regularly engage in sexual intercourse. Under English law, at least, there is no doubt about who is and who is not legally married and therefore it is possible to define cohabitation in these rms. Unless otherwise stated, references to marriage', 'married couples', and 'getting married' will refer to legally recognized marriage.
Types of Cohabitation
Lewis has described three main types of cohabitation:
A)TEMPORARY OR CASUAL.' Research6 has found that many cohabit-ing relationships start in a casual way. A high proportion of couples have no thought-out reason for beginning the relationship: it just
happens. In other cases the relationship is purely a temporary one: for
example, research among cohabiting students in American colleges
has suggested that their relationships are more like 'steady dating'
than anything else.
B)PREPARATION OR TRIAL FOR MARRIAGE: Here there is already either a definite commitment to marry or a some form of conditional commitment. Examples of the former would be where an engaged couple live together before the wedding for reasons of convenience; or where a couple are awaiting the dissolution of their existing marriages to other people. In other cases living together is seen as a trial for marriage: the couple will marry if the trial works out.
C)ALTERNATIVE OR SUBSTITUTE FOR MARRIAGE: this includes couples who have rejected marriage and opted for cohabitation on
ideological grounds. In certain cultures cohabitation has become so
well established that it is accepted as a social institution in its own right. Where cohabitation is the 'done thing' those who decide to live together have often not even considered marriage and therefore can not really be said to have consciously rejected it. Perhaps many young British couples, especially in inner urban areas, are in this category.
Why Do People Cohabit?
A Letter to a Mother: 'I feel very sure now that John is the best person for me to share my life with. In the process of developing our relationship we have come to believe that there are means more conducive to a growing and 'stable relationship than that of marriage. Certainly the examples of failing marriages prevalent in our society today (e.g. John's parents) have a negative impact on any goals of marriage for us ... So John and I propose to live together for a year to give us time to workout our domestic roles and get a better idea of each other's life goals to be further sure that they can be shared and/or coexist. ..We each have had several close relationships and do not feel now as much the need for the security of marriage to have one. The options are more easily available by not being married and we believe we can contribute to fuller communication ... For people to grow they must be part of an open system and not one that becomes locked in, which is more likely to happen in marriage. In time we hope our relationship will grow sufficiently strong to be able to include the external bond of marriage in a long-term commitment that would include having children.’
In this letter a young woman explains why she prefers cohabitation to marriage. It is quite likely that others who have followed the same route as her share some of her reasons. The reasons she gives include:
a) a belief that a deeper quality of relationship can be enjoyed outside marriage;
b) a fear that a married relationship would end in disaster as many marriages she knows of have done. Many clergy have encountered
couples who fear their relationship will be 'jinxed' if they marry. These couples often have close personal experience of unhappy marriages.
c) a belief that a period of cohabitation prior to marriage can be a preparation for marriage by helping the couple to understand each other better and adjust to one another;
d) a belief that marriage involves a higher degree of commitment than he is yet ready for;
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of why people choose to cohabit. ther reasons include:
e) legal inability to marry due to existing marriages to other people
f) ideological rejection of marriage
g)it just seemed the thing to do because everyone else was doing it.
reasons: for example, in
regulations favoured unmarried couples. Another financial incentive
to live together is the prohibitive cost of paying for two flats when one
would do. This pressure particularly applies to engaged couples who
may decide that in the run-up to the wedding it makes good financial sense to share accomodation. For other couples the cost of the wedding and, more especially, the reception, is prohibitive and can be responsible for the delay of the marriage for many years.
i) with cohabitation there are fewer restrictions on who one can have relationship with, and when and how the relationship can start and
j) cohabitation offers the sexual and emotional closeness of marriage with the independence and autonomy of singlehood.
But why has cohabitation increased so
dramatically at this particular point in history? Increased divorce rates, the
decline in religious belief, altered understandings of love and marriage have
no doubt all played their part. So has the post-war change in sexual attitudes
and behaviour in many Western countries. The recent dramatic rise in
cohabitation was preceded
by the increase in the availability of reliable contraception and
the increased acceptability of
pre-marital sexual intercourse. In
The next three chapters:
Chapter 2: Can the Bible Help
Chapter 3: Biblical Perspective
Chapter 4: Pastoral Applications
are available in Jenkins, G, Cohabitation a Biblical Perspective, Grove Books, Nottingham, 1993 (Second Edition), available post free from Grove Books Ltd, Ridley Hall Rd, Cambridge, CB3 9HU. (Tel: 01223 464748) price £2.25. These extracts are copyright Ó Gary Jenkins 1993.
The last chapter is printed below
CONCLUSION TO ‘Cohabitation: A Biblical Perspective’
All the signs are that the incidence of cohabitation has increased in the last 1 5 years and that it is a social phenomenon that is here to stay. Cohabitation, of course, is a broad term covering a range of relationships. People enter these relationships for a range of different reasons and bring to them a range of different expectations.
A biblical perspective on cohabitation has been offered in this booklet. It has been argued that cohabitation relationships are a subset of all sexual relationships and that cohabitation relationships must be evaluated in the light of the biblical norms that govern all sexual relationships. An evaluation has been offered of cohabitation in the light of biblical teaching. All sexual relationships including married relationships and all cohabitation relationships are obedient to these norms to varying extents. The extent to which they obey these norms is the extent to which the relationship is consonant both with the creator's intention and with the created reality of who men and women are and what relationships are.
At one time, even for people who had no explicit commitment to the Christian faith, getting married seemed the natural thing to do. Marriage was the normal outcome of a successful courtship. Today more and more couples decide to live together outside of marriage either as an alternative to marriage or as preparation for it. Fewer people seem to see the need to get married at least, before they start living together, although most couples get married at some point.
A sizeable proportion of cohabitants who eventually opt for marriage opt for a wedding according to the rites of the Church of England or other Christian churches, yet, a perusal of Christian literature shows that remarkably little has been written by Christians about cohabitation, and the subject is largely ignored in most wedding preparation materials produced by Christians. It seems that in this case, as in many others, the Church has been slow to respond to social change. The Church needs to think seriously and biblically about cohabitation: to understand what is
going on in these relationships; to evaluate them in the light of the scriptures; and be ready and willing to commend the rightness and wholesomeness of marriage lived as the creator intended it. It is not enough just to state that sex outside marriage is wrong. Too often an
undue emphasis is given to sex in Christian teaching about relationships: biblical teaching about sex and sexual immorality is important but it is only one aspect among many aspects of relevant biblical teaching. A broader, multi-dimensional, biblical perspective is needed.
the future, the increasing social acceptability of cohabitation may lead to
changes in marriage laws. In
In a world where so many relationships are going wrong the church has some real Good News to proclaim. God's word comes as Good News to all sick and sinful relationships. God's word speaks to cohabitation as it speaks to all areas of life and the church has the privilege of helping to pass that message on. It will need to done lovingly sensitively, imaginatively and humbly. May it be, that many cohabiting couples come, by God's grace, to walk in his good and perfect ways in their married lives together and experience his blessing and his love.