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older couple on beachWhat is marriage?

When do we stop mentoring the truth about marriage?

I submit for your consideration a strange phenomenon.  An increasing number of older men and women are moving in together.  But, it appears to me that their rationale is fear-based.  Perhaps their spouse has died.  They don’t want to be alone.  Financially, it seems practical not to marry and, instead, live together.  Perhaps it seems less complicated to keep their business affairs separate for the sake of their children and grandchildren.  Perhaps insurance coverage or a life-savings will be better protected if they just cohabitate.  After all, it isn’t so much about sex as it is companionship and being a couple in a “couple’s world.”

So, what is a cohabitating senior, especially a cohabitating Christian senior, saying about marriage?

Is marriage all about the joys of pro-creational sex?  Or is it more?

Marriage, from a Biblical worldview, is the practice of generational faithfulness.  It is the union of one man and one woman with all that they uniquely bring into partnership for the benefit of family and community.  In God’s words, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18 ESV).

We tell young people not to live together because marriage, more than anything else, is for the benefit of children.  God knows and evidence proves that if a man and a woman have a child, that child will do better when raised by a father and mother who are committed to one another in the life-long relationship of marriage.  Son or daughter will benefit from seeing the vocations of male and female played out in the home.  If a man and woman are married but cannot bear their own or adopt children, they remain an example to nieces, nephews, and neighboring children that marriage is a meaningful union that strengthens society.  It is one man committing to unselfishly love, partner with, and guard one woman under God.  It is one woman committing to unselfishly respect, partner with, and complete one man under God.  It is intimacy… far beyond the sexual.

So, what is an older couple who chooses to live together saying about marriage?

Are they saying that God’s institution of marriage is important for young people but not for those over 65?

Are they saying that one marriage was good and, out of loyalty to their first spouse, they won’t marry again?

Are they saying that financial stability and not God’s design is in their better interest?

Are they saying that marriage is all about sex and if they sleep in different beds then living together is no big deal?

Are they saying that they no longer need to set an example for children, grandchildren, or any child in the neighborhood?

Is the man saying there’s no need to guard his woman’s reputation and cover her with his name?

Is the woman saying she doesn’t need to help and complete her man?

When do we stop mentoring generational faithfulness?

Can you tell me?

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My friend, Allie, has made an investment.  The cost is too great, she thinks, to disconnect from that investment.

Am I speaking about Allie’s financial affairs?  No.  I’m referring to matters of her heart and soul.  Allie is cohabiting.  She has invested the greater part of her very being to a man not her husband.  Why?

There are many reasons why Allie continues to live with her boyfriend.  She has bonded with her partner.  She told me he isn’t the Christian she’d like him to be.  He isn’t protecting her virtue like he should.  He doesn’t have the qualities she would choose in a husband nor is she convinced that he should the father of her someday children.  But, she is “one” with him.  She has bonded.  What Allie doesn’t realize is that oxytocin and her amygdala have paralyzed her good judgment.  Hormonal chemicals and the “feeling” part of her brain are playing with the strings of her heart.

The concept of marriage frightens both Allie and her boyfriend.  Allie’s parents are divorced.  Her boyfriend’s parents are also divorced.  In their circle of friends and relatives, there are few models of faithful and working marriage.  “Living together” is just “what you do” to “find out if you really get along.”  Or, “living together” first is a “good way to avoid divorce.”  So, Allie and her boyfriend are just “doing what everyone else” seems to be doing.

Allie wants to believe that her boyfriend might change.  What is changing, however, is how she sees him.  Early in our visits, Allie explained how uneasy she was with her boyfriend’s need to control her, his sudden bursts of anger, and his avoidance of discussions about faith.  Over time, Allie began offering excuses for his negative and often wrongful behavior.  What is also changing is Allie’s perspective on God.  She wants me to remind her of her identity as a daughter of God in Christ.  She knows God loves her and that she’ll always be His child.  But, because she is living in a relationship that cannot please God, she is making God fit into her world.

So, how did Allie find herself in a place she really doesn’t want to be?  She longs for home and family, but has no husband.  She knows she isn’t in a healthy relationship, but worries that there might not be another.  She and her boyfriend sometimes speak about marriage, but her comments to me reveal that Allie’s standards for her live-in partner are actually lower than they are for her some-day husband.  Why is this happening?

Allie has done what researchers call “sliding, not deciding.”  Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, explains.  “Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation.  Couples bypass talking about why they want to live together and what it means.”

There’s something else.  Allie and her boyfriend have different, but unspoken, agendas.  A woman may view living together as verification that a man cares about her and living together, as much as she may dislike it, is a step toward marriage.  She may even think that by giving her man what he seems to want, he will, in turn, want to marry her.  But, a man may see living together as a way of testing a relationship or even postponing the commitment of marriage.  And, if a woman is willing to fulfill his physical desires without a ring, why jump into commitment until, well, maybe until there are children to consider.  Dr. Jay writes that “this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of commitment even after the relationship progresses to marriage.”

Couples who cohabit before marriage may want to avoid divorce, but that’s not the reality.  Dr. Jay notes that “couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages – and more likely to divorce – than couples who do not.  These negative outcomes are called the cohabitation effect.”

Sliding into an unmarried-but-want-to-be-married state wouldn’t be a problem for Allie if sliding out was easy.  But, Dr. Jay explains that Allie is “locked in.”  She’s “signed up for a credit card with 0 percent interest.  At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent [Allie feels] stuck because [her] balance is too high to pay off.”  For Allie, being “locked in” decreases the likelihood that she will search for, or adjust to, another option.  “The greater the setup costs,” explains Dr. Jay, “the less likely we are to move to another, even better, situation, especially when faced with switching costs, or the time, money, and effort it requires to make a change.”

For some, living together seems fun.  Economical.  Safe.  Allie also perceives it as better than living at home (after all, she’s in her 20s) or with a girlfriend.  Allie once told me she was trying to “nest” in her boyfriend’s apartment, but when I asked her whose bed she was sleeping in she whispered, “His.”  Not “ours.”

As time goes by, Allie more stubbornly defends her living arrangement.  Why?

Because Allie’s investment is too high.  In her mind, perhaps too high to disconnect.  Too high to re-evaluate her standards.  Too high to wait patiently for a man who values her enough to say “I do . . . until death do us part.”  There are no children, yet; but, should Allie become pregnant, then what?  Will she settle for whatever?  Will she marry the man she says doesn’t have the qualities a child should have in a father?

Allie, like all men and women who cohabit and then, perhaps, slide rather than decide, seems stuck.  But, I know Allie.  She tears up when I remind her that she is the daughter of God because of what Jesus has done for her.  She says she is always encouraged by our visits.  She wants to believe she has a future of hope.  So, I will continue to remind her, whenever I can, that she has the ability to choose the father of her children.  She has the strength — promised from Jesus Himself – to leave bad habits behind and start fresh.

After all, Jesus’ investment in Allie is much higher than any investment she has ever – or will ever – make.  Jesus invested all He had for the sake of Allie’s soul.

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