Though Christians continue to affirm the uniqueness, the goodness, and the necessity of marriage, our society continues to legitimize cohabitation as either a common precursor to marriage or a complete alternative. This slide is troubling, for marriage offers a number of important benefits that are absent from cohabitation—benefits that extend to couples, to their children, to their families, and to society as a whole. Christopher Ash helpfully outlines these in his book Married for God.
1. Marriage Is Unambiguous
Unlike cohabitation, marriage is unambiguous. In fact, in most cases cohabitation is deliberately in its ambiguity. “When a man and woman begin sleeping together and perhaps move in together, the rest of us are left guessing as to what exactly is the basis of their relationship. Clearly they have agreed to sleep together, as otherwise it would be rape. But what have they promised one another, if anything? On what basis or shared understanding are they together?” The answers will vary from couple to couple and may range from a very minimal level of commitment to a very significant one. But there always remains a measure of uncertainty. Often each of the partners will have different levels of commitment or expectation—one thinking that moving in together marks the beginning of something permanent while the other regards it as a mere trial period. All the while the rest of us are uncertain how to relate to them as they live together and if and when they dissolve their relationship. The relational ambiguity is especially apparent when one of them dies. “Who is the next of kin? With whom should we grieve most deeply? The parents, or the live-in partner?” Marriage helpfully resolves this lack of clarity.
2. Marriage Is a Union of Families; Cohabitation Is Free-Floating
Marriage is a union of families rather than just of two free-floating individuals. Cohabitation is an attempt to keep a relationship private, not in the sense of secret, but “in the sense of an arrangement agreed to and confined to the two of them, with families only rather awkwardly and ambiguously involved.” But marriage joins together two families in a connection that is meant to be a responsibility and blessing to both. “It is better to be connected than to float ‘free’ but disconnected from wider family and society,” for biblically this kind of scattered freedom is regarded as a curse while gathering into a people and family is regarded as a blessing. “This is because God wants his world governed in an ordered way by connected people.” Marriage serves as a small but foundational expression of bringing order through connection.
3. Marriage Provides Protection for the Vulnerable at the Start
The public nature of marriage provides an important protection for the vulnerable at the start of the sexual relationship. “We sometimes think that we are autonomous free-floating individuals who make decisions for ourselves. The reality is that we are influenced in many ways in every decision we make. And in the area of sex, above all, we are open to manipulation and exploitation, even unwittingly, by passions that rage and desires that can overwhelm us.” We are all prone to making poor decisions that we will later regret, and this is especially true in those areas where we can be unduly influenced by strong passions and desires. The public and family aspects of marriage serve as a kind of protection against this. “Because marriage is a public union in which the families ought to be involved, and not just the two individuals, it offers the protection and wisdom of families in a way that can protect the vulnerable from being exploited or making foolish decisions under the pressure of passion.” Many couples resent the involvement of family; many families are sinfully manipulative and overbearing. But more often than not (and certainly when families are behaving according to God’s pattern), they provide an important measure of protection and affirmation.
4. Marriage Offers Some Hope of Justice to Those Wronged When It Ends
Marriage offers important measures of protection and justice for the one who is wronged when a marriage breaks up. “When a man or woman walks out of a sexual relationship, the other partner always suffers. In marriage, however, society recognizes that the abandoned party has rights that the other needs to honor. And in a healthy society the one who walks out is forced to honor these rights and is not able to walk away irresponsibly.” While these protective measures may be imperfect, they are at least designed to ensure that there is a framework to promote and ensure justice. Of course many countries are now acting to enforce similar obligations with cohabitation, but there is a strange irony here. “Perhaps before long no one will be able to walk out of a cohabitation without some obligation to fulfill responsibilities to the other (especially if there are children). We must welcome this. But we must also note that every move in this direction makes unmarried cohabitation less attractive to those who entered it precisely in order to avoid the obligations of marriage. Indeed, we could make a case for saying that society ought to treat cohabiting partners as if they were married, with all the obligations that entails. This would mean that to break a cohabitation, one party would have to sue for what would effectively be divorce! If that were to happen, then the mere action of moving in together would come to signify the commitment verbalized in the marriage vows, and then cohabitation would mean marriage.” Wouldn’t that be something.
5. Marriage Strengthens Private Intentions with Public Promises
The public promises of marriage are necessary because when we make public promises, we lay our reputation and integrity on the line behind those promises. While couples often make private promises to one another, there is a world of difference between those made in private and those declared in public before witnesses. “Private assurances are terribly easy to break; they evaporate like the morning dew. … But when all my wider family, my friends, my work colleagues, and my neighbors know I have publicly made this pledge, then I am much more inclined to keep it. I do not want them thinking I am a liar. And marriage begins precisely with those public promises.” Those public promises are made before witnesses—many or few—who stand in the place of the rest of society to affirm them and call upon a couple to honor them. “Our capacity for faithfulness makes marriage possible, but our capacity for unfaithfulness makes marriage necessary. We need the public promises to hold us to the faithfulness we pledge. When we struggle in difficult marriages, it is a great help to know that we have publicly promised to be faithful for life, and that everybody else expects us to keep that promise, and that if we don’t then we must expect to experience shame. All this strengthens and supports marriage, and helps us keep to the end the promises we made at the start.”
In each of these ways—and many more could be listed, marriage is far better than cohabitation.
For an alternate, entirely secular, but still interesting view, you may enjoy watching this video from The School of Life: Why Bother With Marriage?