On (Not) Living Together Before Marriage

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. TC mark

image – Aleksandar Cocek

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.


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  • ams

    Loved this article. It’s not something I personally chose to do, but I totally get it.

    Also I wish that the idea of morals wasn’t so engrained in people that it is automatically linked to religion or religious beliefs.

  • Jenna Osoteo

    aww This was sweet. I agree with everything you say. Nice piece. 

  • http://maxwellchance.wordpress.com Duke Holland of Gishmale

    So, you’re following your parent’s traditions in the religious and lifestyle sense. You justify it with ‘magical’ feelings and faith–I mean ‘hope’. I wonder what your views would be if your parents were Christians that lived together before marriage. 

  • http://fartsinlove.tumblr.com Ernest Fartingway

    Based on your articles you are a strangely conservative person. Also, in my experience the only people who believe in marriage like you do are the few whose parents are still together when they enter adulthood. I think more people need to still believe in human love.  

    • Random

      The only people who believe in marriage are the ones who’ve witnessed and lived through something like it? No way!

      Anyway, I guess atheiests are allowed to be as irrational as the next religious zealot, but this no living together before marriage sentiment is pretty irrational. I see all pluses to moving in together before marriage and no minuses, except for your strong belief in love which prevents you from doing it? It’s romantic to make jarring changes? Devoting the rest of your life to someone isn’t romantic enough?

      • http://twitter.com/caaalebbb Caleb Reidy

        lol. ‘irrational.’ all rational examination of life leaves us spinning in a violent circle of paradox’s demanding the only rational way out to be suicide. your existence is irrational.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Chelsea. This is exactly how I’ve felt on the subject… which has always been received terribly by (ex) boyfriends. I look forward to saving some of the magic for the actual marriage part. It’s also why I’ve always been weary of the idea of long engagements.

  • Mr Shankly

    You seem to view love with the same fervour as theists view their deities. This concerns me.

    • Anonymous

      I do, that’s true! Perhaps I am a romantic soul, but I’ve always felt a need to appreciate the great and the miraculous within people–within the things that actually occur between us.

      There are far too many wonderful, beautiful, incredible things that we share and that we are capable of amongst ourselves to even bother with the unanswerable question of whether or not there’s a God. It’s sort of a moot point, really.

      Great acts of kindness, lifelong love, giving friendships, thoughtful sacrifice–if these things aren’t worthy of our praise and admiration, what is?

      • Guest

        Er, they are of course worthy of our praise and admiration – but marriage has nothing to do with lifelong love.  

      • Guest

        Er, they are of course worthy of our praise and admiration – but marriage has nothing to do with lifelong love.  

      • Rhett King

        “nothing” is a bit of a stretch, don’tcha think?

      • http://plct.blogspot.com Keturah

        for how much you uphold your atheist standpoint, i find it interesting that a lot of what you write is straight out of the bible. i’m not religious, but i believe in a God who  is love, personified. i am divorced from someone i never lived with before marriage, broken up with a boyfriend i lived with and never married, and still unsure of my standpoint on cohabiting before marriage. but i know what i believe about love: it is beautiful and should be protected and cared for as much as possible. but it’s not all romance and puppies and sugar- it’s hard work too!
        thanks for being brave enough to have an unusual and [apparently] offensive opinion.

  • vini

    It’s a sweet thought and I get the idea. As someone who was brought up surrounded by the religious dogma you mention, part of me is even attracted to it. But I have a feeling you’re more enamored to this idea than what it would actually mean in all practicality. For most couples in this day and age, as we move further away from the patriarchal rules of a society where women and youth didn’t feel like they had so many options, I do believe a live-in test-drive is somewhat natural, expected, and required. But hey, if you believe in your heart that doing it your way will actually increase the chances having a fulfilling and successful marriage, by all means, knock yourself out. ;-)

  • Anonymous

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want to move-in before marriage unless finances forced them to do it. There’ll be plenty of time for fighting over chores and money after you get married. 

    Enjoy the dating part where you live separately and only deal with the fun parts of your partner for as long as it lasts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1135492806 Ischra Centeno

    I think you replaced a god for a chemical reaction.

  • Anonymous

    Live-in girlfriends rock.

  • Kate

    I lived with a boyfriend for about a year and a half.  A lot of it was great.  I adore playing house, but the fact that we weren’t married maybe screwed us both up.  If we had been married all of the energy I had put into being a full time “housewife” would have been honored, if nowhere else, but a court.  Instead, I feel like I have to hide a large chunk of my life just because the explanation would be too involved.  It was a strange chapter that I honor, but I’ll be much more careful if I choose to do it again.

  • KP

    This is the same logic for not test driving a car before you buy it. Your first drive will be so much more exciting if you own it! Unless, of course, that car turns out to be a lemon….. 

    • Guest

      Yes, these two things are exactly the same.

  • http://unemployedyetagain.tumblr.com Unemployed Yet Again

    I also agree with not living together before marriage (though I have slightly different reasons). One of the things that bother me is that people always react so strangely to that idea: “what do you mean, you don’t want to do that? you need to see what it’s like to live together!” I don’t tell other people not to live together, but I wish that it were more socially acceptable to simply say “that’s not something i want to do.” I don’t even really share this point of view with my friends, since they would find it weird. Thanks for writing this!

  • Mire

    I completely agree. Beautifully said.

  • Visualglamour

    The fervor with which you describe your future anonymous boyfriend/husband strikes me as a bit naive. I am in a long-term relationship & have lived with a couple boyfriends previously. Your article strikes me as the quaint observations of a girl whos parents are still together & is living vicariously through their path in life. I don’t mean to sound jaded – both living/not loving with a beau has great beauties & struggles – I just think you can’t see these aspects until you have lived them. Raised strict Catholic, now agnostic I can appreciate your clarity on being blinded by religious lifeviews. I just can’t believe you won’t see things differently until you’ve lived with a long term boyfriend. You’ll see the good, the bad, the annoying, the outraging & those life-affirming moments you yearn for. Seeing those before marriage might be cheating, but you can take off the rose-colored glasses & live it. You’ll still want to get married, I do!

  • Eskeller

     moving in together is romantic whether you’re married or not!

    i’m married with a child, and a dog, and a house–all of which my husband and i had before we got married. we got married because we really really love each other and like each other. (the tax benefits of marriage are mostly a myth). we were (obviously) more cautious than others —  But honestly it made the decision that much MORE romantic knowing that after all that shit we STILL want to be together in perpetuity. all that said,  i hope someday my kid looks at her parents (us) with as much adoration as you seem to look at yours.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.n.knutson Sarah N. Knutson

    I’m a proud Christian but have the same opinion about (not) living with my future husband as you do. I’m prone to put stock in facts: couples who live together prior to marriage have a higher divorce rate than married couples who did not live together.

    That ‘magic’ you talk about is the building blocks of a relationship-when you have your first fight about who squeezes the toothpaste tube “wrong” or doesn’t load the dishwasher the right way, you learn about how to live with your husband/wife, as well as how to fight fair/healthily, etc.

    All those little things you build as a couple, living with someone for the first time and figuring it all out together, that’s what this is about. I’m right there with you on this. Well done.

    • your cousin

      “Couples who live together prior to marriage have a higher divorce rate than married couples who did not live together. ”

      But people whose parents are still married to each other have lower divorce rates than those whose parents are not. And those who have high school diplomas and bachelor and post-graduate degrees have still even lower divorce rates than those who do not. And socioeconomics come into play, and race and ethnicity as well. When you look closer, the statistics and “facts” stack up pretty nicely in this author’s favor – whether she co-habits before marriage or not.

  • JEN

    I was expecting this article to go in a vastly different direction based on the title.  Having lived with my boyfriend for a year and a half before we got engaged, I can honestly say that every moment of the journey to this point has been thrilling.  I am marrying my best friend who I am in love with; the person I come home to, cook with, share ideas with, read next to at night, and wake up to the next morning.  If THAT isn’t romantic, I dunno what is.  To each his own.  

  • Rachel Butters Scotch

    Aw. This is so relevant to my life right now.
    But do you ever spend the night with your boyfriend for multiple days at a time? 

  • Jordan

    I’d have to say i’m pro-cohabitation but I understand this logic!  I think the prospect of ‘finding out’ about your partner, or your relationship, is maybe what drives this overall.  Probably stems from the fear of finding out you’re gonna be bored and annoyed once you’re sharing the same quarters.  But I don’t need to explain that.  I used to not understand why people waited for sex in relationships (not necessarily for marriage, but waiting a little bit in general), so who knows where I’ll feel on this in a few years.

    Nice piece!

  • http://www.nosexcity.com NoSexCity

    An interesting perspective to consider, for sure. I see the merit in saving that kind of day-to-day intimacy/reality with a spouse instead of “just another boyfriend”.

  • your cousin

    I don’t agree with it – and am, in fact, shopping to furnish the house I share with my boyfriend as I type this – but it’s a very sweet idea. I often surprise myself with how conservative / traditional I actually am.

  • guesst

    This is idiotic.

  • Guest

    blah blah

  • Guest

    I get where the author is coming from and I’m glad that so many people are at least open to her decision. I’m undecided on living with partners before marriage, but I hope that if people choose not to do it that it won’t be looked down upon. 

    I hope that in the future, women will be more like this author, and be less afraid to make their own choices. Us feminists are beginning to call women who make their own choices–like this author–“backwards” or “antiquated” if that choice doesn’t fit into the stereotype of 21st Century relationships. I’m really struggling in this world where being progressive has become such a harsh and unloving club. Let’s help the original meaning of the term “open-minded” stick.

    • Anon

      Shut up, Chelsea Fagan.

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