Saturday, July 5, 2014

Is it wrong to live together before you're married?

Q:  My boyfriend wants me to move in with him.  This makes a lot of sense to me since I can’t stay where I am anyway, and we would save a lot of money, and will probably get married eventually.  But my Mom is mad about it, and says that if we move in together she won’t even visit us at our new house.  What’s so wrong about living together?

A: I actually got this question quite some time ago, so I hope the one asking is still interested in my answer!  I try to always answer according to the Churches teaching, rather than opinion.  So in order to make sure I got it right, I first read a letter on Cohabitation put out the American Catholic Bishops in the late 90’s.

From my read on it, there’s nothing wrong with living together per se…  but it is a really bad idea.  I find people always want really black and white answers, like “This is a sin, this is not a sin, this would be a sin if conditions A, B, and C were met, unless condition D applied.”  People keep wanting to reduce sin to some sort of strict moral code or set of laws, like the priests in confession will have some law book in which they can look up sins and the appropriate penance for them!  (Actually, at one point such books existed…)

To understand sin you have to understand that they are not strictly delineated, but are things that are not loving and so take you or others away from God, so some things are sins in some contexts and not in others.  Like the f-word is a swear in English, but when French sealers use the word phoque, it’s different.

The letter from the Bishops basically said that living together increases the likelihood of divorce (as studies have repeatedly shown), and that while there are good reasons to want to live together, they are not as good as the reasons to not!

It is interesting and counter intuitive that divorce rates go up.  Maybe there is no causal relationship.  Maybe divorce rates are just higher among people who are willing to take moral risks.  But maybe the impermanent nature of the cohabiting relationship is brought into the marriage, and actually becomes a threat itself!

Part of the problem is that most people who want to live together are probably already sexually active.  If that’s the case, you have already chosen to go your own way, and to ignore the clear teachings of the Church on chastity.  Living together may exacerbate the problem, but the problem really is that you are sexually active, not the living together.  It’s like teens will ask questions like “If you are a man, having sex with a male prostitute, and he has Aids, is it OK to use a condom?”  Teens are surprised to learn that in that context, Catholics don’t care if you use a condom-  in fact it may be wise. 

This is because you are already abandoning the Churches teachings on sex-  that it is only moral when it is open to life and an act of love.  If it is impossible for the act to transmit life anyway, who cares if you use a condom?  I think the inclination to make Catholic morality a string of rules blinds us to the fact that they are all logical and have a common underpinning.

So if you’re sleeping together anyway-  living together makes it harder to break up, harder to repent from your sin, and put’s faith filled people in the awkward position of feeling like they are acknowledging the sin if they come over…  but the real problem is unchastity.

That aside-  what if you are in a relationship with someone and you are not sleeping together, and you intend to save sex for marriage?  Is living together wrong then?

Yes-  for two reasons.  One, it is the occasion for sin.  And two because it is the cause of scandal.  If you can live in the same house with someone that you are romantically involved with and somehow maintain appropriate physical boundaries, then you are much stronger than I ever was!  I know of at least one couple where they moved in together and wanted to save sex for marriage, but eventually gave in.  Don’t think there could be a problem?  I suggest you watch some old friends episodes, and I think you will quickly realize the pitfalls of living too closely!

Even in my situation today, I would never, say, share a hotel room with a woman besides my wife on a business trip.  Partly because of the temptation which would only increase if I got tired or intoxicated.  And partly because of the scandal!  Someone might discover that we were sharing a room, and draw the logical conclusion.  Not only would that be an issue for my marriage, I might very well lead them to sin.  There would be an implicit endorsement of sinful activity by the presumption that I am living a publicly sinful life!  We must not only be chaste, we must appear to be chaste.  If an engaged couple moved in together, everybody would assume what they were up to, and while people might not be scandalized in the same way as they were in the past, it would imply that you too are OK with premarital sex.

So the moral of the story is, that while there are many practical reasons why someone would want to live together, from a faith perspective it is bad for you and for the others around you.  We have a moral responsibility to avoid sin, the near occasion of sin, and the appearance of sin.

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