Living Together? ...but not married

Pastor Brad Bailey shares thoughts for those who may be living together before marriage…or thinking about it.

We recognize that more couples are choosing to live together either before marriage or even as a long term alternative to marriage. We also recognize that the reasons vary – including fear of marriage based upon the pain of divorce in their own family experience, the desire to test compatibility before making a life-long commitment, the economic value of more cost-efficient living arrangements, and of course the natural desire to start enjoying live-in companionship and sexual intimacy.

With such a diversity of underlying circumstances and reasons, we do not carry any negative assumptions about the hearts and motives involved. We recognize that there are couples living together who have shown more respect for the heart of marriage than many who may be officially married yet notably irresponsible for the way they have entered that state. Our desire is to speak God’s heart and mind into the unique dynamics involved in your choice. While living together before marriage has been embraced by our current western culture as a natural if not “smart” thing to do, thirty years of modern social research indicates that cohabitation can bring negative influences to the foundation of marriage, including accepting the insecurity of a ‘conditional commitment,’ the assumption that sexual fulfillment is a need separated from the sacred responsibility of creating life, and developing bonds which limit objectively assessing the compatibility for making life-long commitment. While you may not quickly identify with those effects, we encourage you to consider how they tend to bear out in the long term.

Marriage as the Converging of Bonds

Many may wonder if marriage holds any real value. It may be looked upon as just a religious ritual or legal rite that makes no real difference to their relationship. A deeper understanding of marriage appears missing by many in our current cultural. That is why we encourage not simply accepting some sort of obligation to get married….but daring to consider the deeper venture of what marriage truly is.

Marriage is the sacred union between a man and a woman as complimentary beings, which reflects God’s image in giving themselves faithfully to the other in the bonds of a life covenant which bears life-creating potential.

Such a covenant is more than a commitment of the human will. It is a sacred covenant to join in the Divine nature of sacrificial love that transcends one’s own self interest. It is not about simply serving the wants and whims of the other….nor of our own personal pleasure. It is about joining together in a partnership that reflects God’s nature and live-giving purpose. (“Life-giving purpose” and potential simply refers to the power of reproducing life, which, even when the creating of new life does not take place by choice or circumstances, is still reflected in the potential itself.)

While the Scriptures do not attempt to provide a formula for this process, they do provide some precedent and principles that affirm three aspects to ‘giving of ourselves in the bonds of covenant.’

Personal Bonds –

The commitment of hearts to sacrificial love, understanding, and care. Giving our hearts is more than just a matter of what we feel. Our ‘hearts’ reflect our whole inner disposition… the inner posture we develop for the other person. It involves applying our will in what is being formed in us towards the other. It is the heart we give and the heart we must guard.

Communal Bonds - 

The public and legal declaration that binds our marital commitment to the responsibility and support of community. The more independent nature of our culture can cause many to minimize the communal aspect of becoming married. Many consider just having a ‘private wedding’ and forgoing the social and sometimes legal aspect of marriage. While it is understandable that many want to avoid the social demands and costs of planning a wedding, it is vital to understand that it is not formality that needs to be fulfilled, but a much more fundamental need for having the marriage covenant recognized and supported by the larger community that it will then live itself out with. When God declares that marriage is one ‘leaving their father and mother and cleaving to another,’ it is a significant transition that creates a new social-communal entity for all to relate to. Only the lifelong covenant of marriage provides a defining basis for the community of family and friends to stand in full recognition and support of. (When a couple is living together with a clear choice not to bind themselves in a life-long commitment, it is only natural that family and friends will not embrace the partnership as significant and settled in the same way they would if married.) The legal facet of marriage is also a part of the communal bonds. In embracing the legal recognition of the ‘State’ we are agreeing to the recognition, responsibility, and rights which can serve our bonds. The legal aspect adds the bond and boundary of declaring well beyond the immediate community of family and friends who may attend our public wedding… that we embrace a new status of being married individuals. In a similar way, wedding rings offer a public symbol that we are bound in covenant with another.

Physical Bonds

The sexual intimacy that binds us in the power of exclusive pleasure and lifecreating potential. The Scriptures declare that our complimentary nature as male and female is a reflection of God’s nature in a mysterious and wonderful way. God created us as complimentary sexual beings and declared this original created nature to be “very good.” The apostle Paul is very clear that a commitment to marriage must embrace a mutual commitment to maintain the bonds of sexual desire and oneness. (1 Corinthians 7:5) Sexual intimacy is a continual renewal of the vows that have been taken…a continual affirmation that we have now ‘become one flesh.’

The life-long covenant of marriage is that which provides the power of experiencing oneness in sexual intimacy with the security of being bound by the covenant of oneness that has been entered into. Only the life-long covenant of marriage provides the potential of creating lives from such sexual union with the covenant bond of a father and mother. 

These three bonds are designed to unfold in a natural process to form and fulfill the covenant of marriage. As the personal bonds galvanize into a decision to become life partners, the covenant is entered in the public bonds of the recognition and responsibility of community, and consummated in the physical bonds of sexual union. 

The personal bonds without the others will be vulnerable to every toss and turn of the heart. The heart will have a difficult time maintaining it’s bearings without being surrounded by the communal commitment that it is bound in.

The communal bonds without the others….is just a social ceremony and a legal document. Getting married to fulfill social expectations will only cause hurt and hardship in the long run unless one gives their heart as well.

The sexual bond without the others only creates an experience of oneness without truly giving ourselves in the bonds of “being united.” (Jesus spoke this truth into the life of a woman he met at a well. John 4:17-18.) To experience sexual union, which is by nature the most deeply personal and powerful, without having truly given ourselves to the other person in the bonds of marriage, is by nature a state of tension even if we are only minimally conscious of it. It will lead to bonds by which one may already “feel oneness” and therefore loses the appropriate objectivity and freedom to properly consider the choice of making a marriage commitment. If one is already saying “yes” to such a personal uniting, it is hard to then consider saying “no” to marriage even when there may be good reasons to do so.

While some couples seek to live together without being engaged sexually, that generally proves to be unrealistic given the natural desires and nature of “making a home together.” For those who are sexually intimate before marriage, our encouragement is to consider more deeply the nature of sexual bonding and God’s heart to honor what serves not momentary bonds…but longer term soul. We believe that God’s design and desire is clear – the intimacy of becoming “one flesh” in sexual intimacy is only appropriate as the consummation of uniting in the covenant of marriage. Sexual passion is the stimulating of a God-given longing for oneness through the pleasure of releasing both personal and physical boundaries… therefore it’s inherently a part of lifelong partnership. Experiencing ‘oneness,’ without being truly united as ‘one,’ violates our personhood. While the relationship may find pleasure in the bonding, it is those very bonds which can later prove to have taken something from the partner which was intended only for their life-partner. As such, sexual intimacy outside of marriage violates our conscience with God. We realize that within our current culture this may be dismissed, but in truth, the "sexual freedom" of our time isn't free and usually carries some pretty heavy costs.

Why share so much thought about the nature of marriage? It’s not because we expect that every relationship will reflect such an understanding or process. We share this because we want to offer every couple an opportunity to reflect upon their own process.

Our Guidance to Those Living Together Seeking God’s Heart

With such a diversity of underlying circumstances and reasons for living together apart from marriage, we do not carry any negative assumptions about the hearts and motives involved. Our desire is to speak God’s heart and mind into the unique dynamics involved. Our desire is to help you grasp God’s true meaning of marriage…and then help you to step up to it…or step out of ‘playing’ a partial version of it. If you are not prepared to give yourselves in life-long ‘oneness’ yet, our counsel is to move apart and restore appropriate boundaries. You should honor God’s goodness for each other by thoughtfully ending the bonds of sexual union and ‘making home together’… to which we will help as it will take some support. If you have deemed yourselves to already be ‘married in every way other than legally,’ perhaps having already created children together, and if your relationship is sound, we encourage you to complete your oneness by entering into a marriage covenant before God and your community.

Therefore, if you have been engaged in the power of experiencing ‘oneness’ but are not prepared to give yourselves in life-long ‘oneness’ yet, our calling is to move apart and restore appropriate boundaries. You should honor God’s goodness for each other by thoughtfully ending the bonds of sexual union and ‘making home together’… to which we will help as it will take some support. If you have deemed yourselves to already be ‘married in every way other than legally,’ perhaps having already created children together, and if your relationship is sound, we will call you to complete your oneness by entering into a marriage covenant before God and your community. In essence, if you are considering marriage, our desire is to help you grasp God’s true meaning of marriage…and then help you to step up to it…or step out of ‘playing’ a partial version of it.