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Awhile ago, I saw an online query from a journalist looking for information. The query was as follows:

“I’m looking to interview men and women age 20-60 anywhere in the country who are dating someone but not living together. Why, in these tough economic times where it makes financial sense to move in together, do you prefer to live in separate abodes? Do you think it’s better for the long-term health of your relationship to take things slow? Or is there some other reason? Respondents can remain anonymous, although if you’re OK with it I’d like your first name, last initial, age, profession, and city/state of residence – or just whatever you’re comfortable telling me.”

I found this query troubling because of the genuine puzzlement the journalist expressed. I mean, he or she seems honestly confused that anyone could possess a moral code that would not allow them to live with a man or a woman outside of marriage.

When my husband and I were married in 1990, I was renting a house with a yard (I had a dog) and he was renting an apartment in a nearby town. It never – not in a million years – occurred to us to move in together until after the vows were said. There was something thrilling about the idea of setting up housekeeping together once we returned from our honeymoon.

After the wedding, my new husband moved in with me since my rental house was larger than his apartment. A few weeks into our marriage, I stepped onto the porch just as the mailman walked up. “Lewis and Smith?” he asked, shuffling letters.

“No,” I replied proudly. “Lewis and Lewis.” I wanted no misconceptions whatever that we were not husband and wife.

Back to the query. Why, in these tough economic times where it makes financial sense to move in together, do you prefer to live in separate abodes?

Um, how about because perhaps there’s more to life than money. Maybe people who don’t live together before marriage want marriage to actually mean something. It’s gotten to the point where it’s unusual for people to have a clear moral code. The casual substitute of sincere vows for economic convenience and easy sex has become so common place that to NOT fall for it leaves journalists genuinely puzzled.

The Huffington Post reported, “Today, about 60 percent of couples live together before they first marry. ‘It’s becoming so common, it’s not surprising it no longer negatively affects marital stability,’ said Wendy Manning, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.”

Yet shortly after, the article admits, “The study found those who were engaged and living together before the wedding were about as likely to have marriages that lasted 15 years as couples who hadn’t lived together. But what about the couples who were living together but weren’t engaged? The new study found marriage was less likely to survive to the 10- and 15-year mark among couples who weren’t engaged when they lived together – findings similar to earlier research.”

If someone “practices” setting up house together with any number of partners, how will this be any different when they settle for one person permanently? It won’t. The new spouse will be just like an endless list of ex-partners with whom you’ve set up house. There will be no sparkle, no novelty, no fun of moving furniture around and arranging the kitchen. Instead it will just be another tedious time of moving furniture around and arranging the kitchen.

And deep down in their heart, these cohabitants may wonder if this housekeeping setup will last any longer than any of the others.

Perhaps those who approach marriage as the sacred covenant that it is view it differently than those who move in together merely for economic convenience (and free sex). The obvious thing that sets marriage apart from cohabitation is the vows. (Whether people really mean those vows is a whole ‘nother issue.) But marriage is more than just vows. It’s the fun of setting up a life together. It’s getting used to another person’s idiosyncrasies while still wearing the rose-colored glasses of newlyweds (which makes those idiosyncrasies easier to live with). It’s the planning for the future – the house you’ll want to buy someday, the children you’ll bear together, the job prospects you’ll entertain …

I don’t know if cohabiting couples are any more likely to be unfaithful to each other while living together; but regardless, there’s always one foot out the door. If one partner gets tired of the other person’s faults, he or she can just leave. No commitment before God for “better or worse” was ever made. No solemn and morally binding vow was ever shared. And legally there is nothing the other person can do to prevent it.

Successful marriages don’t mean spouses are blind or unaffected by the other person’s faults. It just means they are willing to put in the work to overcome their annoyances for the greater good of the relationship. Because of the legal, moral, financial and personal repercussions of breaking up, they are willing to sacrifice their own selfish desires to make the other person happy. And if both parties are willing to do this on a long-term basis, their odds for a successful marriage are higher.

Yes, marriage is a whole different mindset than merely living together for (cough) economic reasons. A test drive isn’t the same thing as contracting to buy the car. That little piece of paper and silly little ceremony uniting a couple really does make a difference, both in the eyes of the couple and in the eyes of their friends, family and greater society.

While there are exceptions to every side of an issue, the long-term trends still do not favor cohabitation as a precursor to successful marriages. But I don’t think I’ll explain any of this to the puzzled writer who sent that query. I see it as one of those “if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand moments.”

Or maybe I’d just remind him of one of those old time aphorisms: “Why buy the cow when the milk is free?”

 

 

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