College Diary — Shacking Up: Cui Bono?

At Butler University the most hotly debated topic at residence hall government meetings is 24-hour visitation. The rationale for “24-hour vis,” in which visitors of the opposite sex can come and go freely in the dormitories 24 hours a day without restriction, is that, well, couples live together anyway without the benefit of marriage in the Real World, and college dorms should reflect this reality, regardless of what parents think about it. The debates and editorials concerning the topic contain the basic misconception that living together is of the same moral value as marriage and should be treated as such. As someone who is currently attending pre-Cana conferences and studying St. Augustine in a medieval philosophy course, I have come to realize that marriage and living together are not the same — in fact, they’re not even close.

Too many young women are easily duped by the popular myth that just living with a man is a better arrangement than marriage. After all, even Cosmopolitan says so, and for some women Helen Gurley Brown’s publication is followed to the letter on such matters. Authors of such gems as “Confessions of a Groupie” and “What to Wear to an Affair” are trusted with solving and advising readers on personal moral dilemmas because they are “hip.” Never mind that St. Augustine dealt with such issues as sex and cohabitating back in the fourth century; he couldn’t possibly understand the problems of a modern potential Cosmo Girl, right?

Men who ask their girlfriends to move in with them are perceived as making quite a large commitment by the Playboy Advisor’s standards, but for women whose principles are better expressed in The Art of Courtly Love, it is obvious that cohabitation is a raw deal. It is time to tell the Cosmo Girls that they are dead wrong.

When unmarried couples who are friends of mine move in together, I usually buy them housewarming gifts. This leaves me in an uncomfortable position, however, because I feel as though I’m buying gifts for a couple who have already planned on getting divorced sometime, and I can already picture them fighting over the crystal salt and pepper shakers I so lovingly picked out. I have watched such arrangements fall apart so violently that there was carnage to be cleaned up for weeks — carnage so bad that my salt and pepper shakers did not survive. The memory of such vicarious experiences make me cringe when I hear of another couple I care about plunging headlong into the same situation. I have been asked by good male friends to move in with them — and the frequency of such requests has become an in-joke among friends of mine — but I never really took the offers seriously, as I knew well that their intentions were less than honorable and that they were up to no good in even bringing it up. I usually laughed and said that they only wanted to live with me because they wanted someone to do their laundry for them, and thereby brushed off the question.

When questioned about the merits of living together, couples generally have the same answers, most of which presuppose marriage to be something terrifying. Here are the top three typical answers:

1. “I want a chance to live with her for a year and see if she is really the one I want to marry.”

This view puts tremendous pressure on both parties, but more so on the woman. Generally speaking, the man is the one who suggests this arrangement prior to marriage. The woman is usually more sure if he is the One or not. He, of course, is the one with the most to gain from the situation of living together. All metaphors involving cows and milk aside, he is receiving all the immediate benefits of a marriage without accepting any of the responsibilities. The arrangement in this light turns out to be a year-long audition to fill the position of wife, as he is the one deciding whether or not he is ready. The situation can be reversed, so that the woman is the one who “isn’t ready to get married,” but the prevailing scenario I have observed is the woman hoping that he will soon make up his mind in her favor. She believes she’s doing the acceptable thing, since ultra-fashionable society says that she should live with him first, but something just doesn’t seem quite right.

The woman is much more susceptible to the arrangement’s downfalls by the very nature of male-female relationships. She is afraid to make the natural mistakes inherent to living with a person because she can be replaced at any time as easily as a mere roommate. Her name may or may not be on the apartment or house lease, but in either case she can be asked to leave if things don’t go well. She can end up without a place to live on extremely short notice. If he behaves in a way she doesn’t like — for example, he stays out with the boys from work until 4:30 in the morning — there is little she can do besides develop ulcers and stay quiet. She could easily be afraid of being replaced if she makes too many waves, and since she is not his wife and there are no formal ties binding them, she cannot make a lot of demands regarding his behavior without risking the entire arrangement.

This view that a period of time is required before one can be sure a person is the right one to marry is understandable. Yet, if such uncertainty and ambiguity abounds, it seems illogical that the prescribed solution would be to behave as if one were already married — sleeping together, sharing bank accounts, rent, and expenses.

2. “I might discover something horrible about him that I couldn’t find out unless I lived with him first. I’d want to find that out before I married him.”

An engagement of reasonable length would provide ample time for a person to discover the character of one’s future spouse without having to conduct primary research on him or her by cohabitating. Annoying personal habits of one’s roommate are easily blown out of proportion, and in the setting of a Catholic marriage, which is supposed to last forever, such idiosyncrasies are more easily overlooked in light of the sacrament. Couples in an unmarried arrangement are little more than roommates who share a bed. There is no higher purpose to living together. A man merely living with a woman can leave or ask her to leave simply because she habitually leaves dishes in the sink, while a husband would not (or should not, at any rate) be so quick to leave a lifetime commitment. Marriage, by its nature, is a much more tolerant “lifestyle.”

It is unlikely that living with a person would uncover horrendous truths unavailable by merely spending a lot of time together. One would probably not discover, for example, exclusively by living with one’s boyfriend that he was a violent woman basher, a child molester, or a transvestite. If there is something really horrible about one’s fiancé’s character, it will reveal itself eventually, without necessitating cohabitating.

3. “Marriage is too scary.”

The people who make this assertion find permanence to be the most frightening aspect of marriage but don’t find the inconsistency, instability, and temporary nature of cohabitation to be objectionable in the least. St. Augustine listed the three goods of marriage as fidelity, permanence, and children, all of which make it a stable institution. Cohabitation demands and promises none of these things, and so should be much scarier than marriage.

There are no ties — derived from the laws of God or men — binding the unmarried couple, and so fidelity while cohabitating is fairly optional. Female friends of mine have actually been surprised when their live-ins cheated on them. A 19-year-old male friend of mine told me recently that he had lived with an older woman for the entire summer prior to coming to college and that the day after he left to go to school, she moved in with his best friend. Although some people would find my response utterly callous, I think that being surprised at such infidelity is something along the lines of walking through a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night saying in a loud voice, “Gee, what am I going to do with this $200 I have stuffed in my wallet?” and then having the nerve to be surprised when some nearby thugs rob you.

Children are by and large not wanted by couples merely living together, and women seem to go to great lengths to avoid having them, thinking that a pregnancy would destroy their already feeble relationships. In this aspect, cohabitation is the antithesis of Catholic marriage, because the parties don’t even pretend to be open to children. The Amy Vanderbilt Guide to Etiquette. Ann Landers, and, of course, Cosmopolitan all make a point of warning women who are merely living with a man to be on a reliable (read: artificial) form of birth control, “just in case” things don’t work. Actually, the implication is that the inclusion of a child in the arrangement would cause it to go awry, leaving the woman with a child, no male support, and a lot of legal fees. But if the couple are not ready to commit to each other on a permanent basis, they are certainly not prepared to care for a child.

I am hopeful that more young women are realizing they have been fooled by these big lies and thus will refuse to put themselves in a situation where they will undoubtedly be taken advantage of. Even Rousseau admitted that women had more to lose in sexual relationships that excluded marriage; he went so far as to theorize that women invented the institution of marriage to protect themselves from being ill used.

Marriage is simply not the same thing as living together. Everything changes when a couple is married: there is an unbreakable bond between two souls that no cohabitating arrangement could even imitate well. Marriage will not destroy a relationship truly based on love, as some critics claim. If anything, it will strengthen it, as its basis is a love that includes God. An arrangement only resembling marriage in outer aspects excludes God, and therefore is not only lacking and inherently sinful, it is a waste of time.


  • Kimberly J. Gustin

    At the time this article was published, Kimberly J. Gustin was a student at Butler University.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack