I was raised an atheist. My parents, beyond just not believing in a god, have actively fought to abolish the cultural (and often legal) influence religion has in America. They raised me to love Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens–The Holy Trinity, as it were. They have always taught me that no arbitrary “moral” line someone else drew in the sand should ever define how I live my life or how I judge my fellow man. However, there are some concepts that they (and I) feel strongly about that seem inextricably linked with religious dogma, even when the decision comes from a place of personal preference. There are some beliefs and convictions I hold that are often met with the bemused response, “But what do you care? You’re not even religious.” And perhaps no position better typifies this disconnect between being an atheist and still having some traditional leanings than my refusal to co-habitate before marriage.
It should be established, first and foremost, that I believe in marriage. The religious aspect of it (obviously) means nothing to me or my loved ones, but I believe in the concept and the beautifully hopeful idea of it. I want more than just a long-term relationship; I want the joining of families and the carrying of last names and the ring-groove on my third finger that will never go away. It’s important to me. I believe in these things because I believe in love, because I believe in humans, and because I believe that two people actually can be greater than the sum of their parts–and when they find each other, I can think of no better way to celebrate that beautiful connection than the symbolic joining of all that is theirs. Perhaps for an atheist, who cannot look to the sky to add meaning or depth to their life, this wanton belief in the unity between two people is all the more necessary. Love, when it’s good, can make us believe in each other. I look forward to celebrating that, to celebrating my husband, in front of the people I love most; I look forward to being a part of his life forever.
And because I love that concept so much, because I am so enamored with the idea of love being something worth fighting and compromising for, I want to do everything I can to preserve it and make it special. One of the most obvious ways of doing this, for me, is to not live together before marriage.
I know that in this age of instant gratification and rapid-fire emotion, the idea of leaving something as big as what it’s like to live with another person a mystery until legal union is incredibly backwards. I have heard countless times the cries of, “But you can never really know someone until you live with them! How can you expect it to work out if you don’t know everything going in?” and I understand it completely. It is scary, it is a bit dangerous–but perhaps in the very best way.
My mother always told me that, though it may not be cool or hip, leaving a little mystery and doing things in stages is one of the best things you can do for a relationship–that anticipation and leaving something to look forward to teach us patience and appreciation. The idea that, as husband and wife, the first few nights in our home together will be filled with nervous flutterings and excited firsts is so utterly thrilling to me. My parents had girlfriends and boyfriends before they met each other–but they only ever had one husband and wife. They only ever had one person with whom they shared it all, and this adds a dynamic to their bond that I cannot yet relate to, but admire immensely.
I don’t doubt that for the many couples who choose to live together, or even to have children, before they tie the knot, there remains something special and important about getting married. Even if only for the legal status and tax benefits, something has undeniably changed about their relationship. And I know, for many people, the practicality of learning everything there is to know about their partner beforehand is an indispensable part of agreeing to spend their life with someone. It makes sense, it’s reasonable, and it leaves as little to chance as possible.
But I cannot deny that there’s something magical about the idea that when you decide to get married, when you take that leap off that invisible cliff, everything changes. Suddenly, you are sharing daily life together and pooling everything you have–from money to strange little habits–into one collective pot from which you build your life. Going to sleep one night in your charming little single apartment and knowing, firmly knowing, that this is your last night as a bachelor is a scary idea. You are leaving a part of your life behind, making a change and truly dedicating yourself (that bizarre self that only someone who lives with you will meet) to your life as part of a couple. There is a clear moment where things change and you are involved in something that’s not easy to walk away from; you’ve made a commitment to being there for someone, no matter how inconvenient it may get. And for me, making the physical move into this new life together is the ultimate sign of the respect and special place it holds for those who truly believe in it.
People who look down upon “living in sin” for its spiritual implications are, to me, as ridiculous as those who look down on the concept of two same-sex partners marrying. It’s an arbitrary piece of dogma force-fed onto a society that doesn’t need to be told what to do. We’re all adults, capable of making our own choices. There is no moral line for me that separates couples who live together and those who don’t. People are free to do whatever they feel is best for them. But I feel that the association living separately before marriage has with religion almost cheapens it. There are so few moments of pure humanity that we share, and so few celebrations of it that give them the honor they deserve. Marriage remains a bastion of belief in one another, an unabashedly romantic concept. It can be important and sacred for religious people, but it can be no less important to an atheist. One does not need to attach the concept of a God to the concept of love.
I know that if I went home tomorrow and told my mother that I had moved in with my boyfriend, it would be fine. I don’t feel any real pressure from my parents to do as they did and save that for one person to whom I’ve committed my future. I’m sure she would ask me some serious questions, and perhaps shake her head in vague disappointment, but she wouldn’t try to convince me otherwise. There are no judgments behind her desire for me to wait for marriage, and me disregarding it would not imply anything about my character. She simply believes in my father and what they have together, and wanted their life together to be as special and different as they could make it. She wants me to have that same ridiculous belief in the man I marry, that same belief in love.