No one ever asks me if I think it’s a good idea for them to begin living with their boyfriend (or girlfriend). If they did, I would say, “No! That’s a dumb thing to do.”
Well, I imagine giving advice with that kind of sharp clarity. It’s more likely that I would respond with gentle nuance, in large part because of the many years I’ve worked as a counsellor. In that context, I’ve learned a great deal about respecting people’s choices, about the complexity of decisions related to sexuality and intimacy, and about the limits of my influence against strong forces.
We live in a time when many young adults are choosing to live together as a married couple without marriage. Some of these young people have been raised in Christian homes. They have been taught that the deepest sexual intimacies are reserved for marriage, as ordained by God.
As a pastor, I will continue to preach and teach this ancient wisdom from our tradition.
Our young adults know that their parents and grandparents would prefer that they marry before living together. Still, they make their choice, deciding with each other what they are willing to commit to, finding an apartment and moving in together.
They are driven by a number of factors that shape their decision. Cohabitation is growing in Canadian society; currently, approximately 18 percent of couples choose to live together. In that sense, it is more normal and accepted than in previous generations. Individualism is a compelling force. Young adults have less loyalty to institutions like the church, and less willingness to follow institutional directives. Furthermore, media and entertainment have shaped values with respect to marriage and cohabitation.
The church hasn’t always offered a healthy model of marriage or holistic understandings of sexual expression. The church’s silence—or the confusing message that “sex is bad and . . . ought to be saved for marriage”—has left young people poorly informed and reliant on secular resources.
Another factor can be found in the example of previous generations. Many young people know that their parents’ peers were sexually active outside of marriage, even if it was more hidden than it is today. Young people value honesty and shun hypocrisy; cohabiting is seen as having more integrity. In some cases, financial factors play a part. The couple pool resources by living together or they put off marriage until they have funds set aside for their wedding.
Some young people come to marriage hesitantly, having witnessed their parents’ divorce. Living together is a way to “test the waters,” or to take a step towards a permanent commitment. (Those who think living together will help test or cement a commitment are more likely to experience a break-up. In short, cohabitation doesn’t help a couple progress toward a stable marriage.)
It can be challenging, even painful, to listen openly and respectfully, especially when their decision seems to be such a “dumb idea.” At the same time, we don’t want to be so critical and judgmental that we drive our children away or put a hard wedge between us and their chosen partner. May God give us grace to know how to speak deep wisdom and truth in such situations, and how to walk with those who choose a different path than the one we want for them.
Melissa Miller (email@example.com) lives in Winnipeg, where she works as a pastor and counsellor. Her family ties include that of daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.