My fiancé, Chris, and I are not living together. And it doesn’t make sense.
More accurately, it doesn’t make sense to the world. Currently, we pay my mortgage, his rent, two utility bills and a food bill consisting mainly of restaurant tabs. Moreover, we live 45 minutes apart. Most nights, one of us spends 90 minutes in the car. And on the nights we don’t, we miss each other terribly.
Combine those sacrifices with the ever-mounting cost of our upcoming wedding, and it’s understandable why most people look aghast when they discover we’re not cohabiting.
Today, two-thirds of all couples live together before marriage, including at least half the couples marrying in the Catholic Church. Most of those couples cohabit for the same reasons that not cohabiting feels like such a sacrifice to Chris and me. They want to be together. They need to save money. And there’s no social pressure to do otherwise. So why wait? From a practical perspective, it seems logical.
Decades of research contradicts that logic: Couples who live together before marriage run a substantially higher risk of marital unhappiness, domestic violence and divorce. But when you’re in love, it’s easy to ignore research. Sociological evidence can’t compete with desire … and wedding-strained pocketbooks.
For those reasons and more, Chris and I understand why so many couples cohabit. We sympathize with them. But we still choose to sleep apart. And that choice only makes perfect sense in light of our faith.
The New Testament doesn’t leave any wiggle room regarding how God feels about sex outside of marriage, biblically known as “fornication.” Jesus explicitly condemns it in three Gospels (Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21; John 8:41). St. Paul does the same in three Epistles (Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5).
Moreover, unlike some biblical prohibitions, which the Church deems more reflective of ancient Near-Eastern culture than God’s unchanging law (i.e. the injunction on women cutting their hair), the Christian prohibition against premarital relations hasn’t changed (and won’t change) (Catechism, 2350).
And yes, premarital relations and cohabitation aren’t the same. Some couples, more virtuous than us, might manage to live together chastely. The Church considers the possibility of that so remote, however, that she frowns on even the attempt (Catechism, 2391).
It’s also a question of public witness. The world mocks the Catholic understanding of sexuality, denying the mere possibility of loving both chastely and joyfully. Publicly cohabiting, even if privately abstaining, is, at best, a compromised witness. It shows the world what it already believes and hides what it claims impossible.
Regardless, Chris and I live separately (and chastely), because we trust Jesus and his Church. We believe that Jesus is who he says he is — the Son of God — and the Church is who he says she is: his Bride, divinely appointed to transmit, guard and interpret God’s word.
Accordingly, we take the Church’s prohibitions against premarital relations and cohabitation as seriously as we take her prohibitions against lying and cheating. God is God. We are not. If he says something is sinful and a danger to our souls, then it is. It’s not up to us to pick and choose which of his teachings to accept. That’s not what faithful disciples do.
This can sound like blind obedience. But only when seen from the outside. Like stained glass, which looks dull from one side but brilliant from another, our decision to trust Christ and his Church with our relationship has been a decision illuminated by beauty, grace and reason.
The Church’s teachings on marital love, described so powerfully in St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, help us see love-making as a precious gift from God and a sacred renewal of the marriage covenant, meant to bring new life into the world and draw husband and wife closer together.
We’ve not yet entered into that covenant, so its joys aren’t ours to claim.
We’ve also learned to see living under one roof and sharing one bed as an embodied sign of Christian marriage. For Christian spouses, dwelling together isn’t about sleeping arrangements. It’s about what we are — one flesh — because of what we vow on our wedding day: to give ourselves totally and completely to one another for the sake of our salvation.
We haven’t yet made that vow, so its blessings aren’t ours to enjoy.
We do get to enjoy some blessings now.
There is the blessing that comes from a deep friendship, rooted in a shared love of Christ and a mutual desire to sacrifice for the other’s good. There is the blessing of learning how to love in non-sexual ways, preventing sex from becoming a substitute for affection and communication. And there is the blessing of never feeling used or worrying that we’re marrying out of convenience or guilt.
There’s also the blessing of anticipation, of mounting desire and tension that will only be answered on our wedding day. We’re looking forward to so much more than a big party on July 1.
Most of all, though, there’s the blessing of knowing that we’re walking the path Jesus asks us to walk, trusting that, through obedience, we’ll reap unknown graces and be spared unknown crosses. In trust, there is peace.
Yes, that peace comes at a cost. It requires sacrifice. But we’re betting on God — laying odds on the rightness of his wisdom, not the world’s ways or our desires.
And, fortunately, if we stumble we know we can start over with a good confession.
That’s true for all couples. It’s never too late to trust Jesus and his Church in your relationship. It’s never too late to move in with a friend or onto a couch. It’s never too late to love your future spouse as Jesus asks you to love, sacrificially and purely. Lastly, it’s never too late to witness to the world that there is a better way: the way of life-giving love.
Pray for engaged couples; so few even know that way exists. And pray for Chris and for me, so we can continue to walk it.
Emily Stimpson writes from Steubenville, Ohio.