June 2014

To Live Together or Not: That's the Engagement Question

Author: Becca Edwards

Tying the knot is bound to both age-old and contemporary customs. For example, do you know the origin of the term “best man?” Apparently, in ancient times, men would capture women to make them their brides. To help with this “romantic” endeavor, the groom-to-be would take along his strongest and most trusted friend—aka his best man—to help him fight resistance from the woman’s family.

More modern (and less brutish) practices include Martha Stewart-inspired ideas like the cupcake stand/wedding cake or the obligatory dance-o-rama to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”

Like a volatile couple, at times old and new beliefs coincide; other times they collide. One such touchy tradition forbids cohabitation and premarital sex. From a theological standpoint, some feel a moral obligation to their God and religious writings like Hebrews 13:4—“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.” From a historical (and tender) standpoint, the father walks the bride down the aisle to signify the transition of his daughter from one “house” to another—a sentiment for some that becomes moot if the bride and groom already live under the same roof.

“But what about from a practical standpoint?” you might ask. In 2009, the Washington Post published, “Study Links Cohabitation before Marriage to Greater Potential for Divorce,” and featured the research of Scott Stanley, a University of Denver psychologist. Stanley has spent nearly two decades dedicated to figuring out why premarital cohabitation is associated with lower levels of satisfaction in marriage (especially in men) and a greater potential for divorce. His most recent five-year study estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of couples today will live together before marriage, and for two-thirds of them, cohabitation is something that they slid into or “just sort of happened.” In another report Stanley found that of the 1,050 married people surveyed, almost 19 percent of those who lived together before getting engaged had at some point suggested divorce, compared with 10 percent for those who waited until marriage to live together.

Stanley calls this a problem of inertia. “Living together, mingling finances and completely intertwining your lives makes it harder to break up than if you’d stayed at separate addresses,” he said.

According to Greg Kronz, Sr. Pastor at St. Luke’s Church, the majority of the couples he facilitates live together prior to walking down the aisle. “Quite often I ask them why they moved in together, and they list economic reasons,” said Rev. Kronz, who has been providing premarital and marriage counseling for 29 years. “I then ask them, ‘What if I told you I’d pay you to kill someone or buy drugs for me?’ and they seem shocked and surprised. That’s when I point out, ‘but doesn’t making money make economic sense, too?’”

Kronz considers “objective morality” to be a critical issue, and he says that some erroneously believe that God’s moral laws change with the times. “We play games to qualify and quantify whatever is socially acceptable to make it right,” he said. He goes on to say that three possible sources govern moral decision making: others (peer groups, experts and the majority), our self (for pleasure, personal happiness or self-actualization) or God. “So then we must ask what or who is influencing us to make these objective moral decisions?”

“Traditional values, God’s values, never change,” said Kronz’s wife Meredith. “They are the same yesterday, today and forever. God’s rules are for our benefit, not our detriment.” A mother of three, she speaks from the heart and from experience when she speaks against premarital cohabitation.
“Our daughter lived with her (now ex-) boyfriend for over a year. They even talked about getting engaged, but when she was having some health challenges he left her. It was almost like she just wasn’t fun and cute to him anymore,” Meredith said.

Devastated then, their daughter is now thankful because she says she learned a valuable lesson. When it came to her next successful relationship, she waited until after the “I dos” to live happily ever after in the same home. “And she is so much healthier and happier!” Meredith said.

Some might argue, though, this is exactly why couples should move in together—to have a dress rehearsal of sorts. “I think any couple that decides to move in with each other expects all the good, but I do not think anyone is truly ready to see the bad and the ugly!” said Christina Rinaldi, who lives with her fiancée Benjamin Harris and is looking forward to her fall wedding. “I always thought the idea of playing house and being a little Susie homemaker was going to be loads of fun and easy, but it’s not. It’s the days when you’re in a bad mood or just want to be alone that make it the most challenging. The little day-to-day chores are minor compared to family feuds, hormones and other personal and sensitive subjects that you’re not ready to talk about. That’s why I think it is so important to know exactly what you’re walking into and that you both have a clear view of the future.”

Kalina Zaryczny agrees. She lived with her now husband John Tolerton a year before their May 2013 wedding. “Living together before marriage is a beautiful thing,” she said. “It allows each partner to lay out what they are willing and not willing to compromise. It was a sticker shock for John when he started buying organic, natural, unprocessed foods, but he knew it wasn’t something I was willing to compromise.”

Zaryczny and Tolerton waited until after he proposed to move in together—an important step and component of Stanley’s research. Stanley’s studies have shown there’s almost no difference in marital satisfaction between couples who moved in together after they got engaged and those who did it after their wedding day. Plus, as a blended family Zaryczny and Tolerton had to consider the best way to transition Tolerton’s two young sons. “I had no experience with children with the exception of the volunteer work I’ve done and a small amount of time with my nephew,” Zaryczny explained. “My husband and stepsons were really courageous. They allowed me to come into their lives and make changes. My husband was extremely receptive. I believe the year leading up to our wedding helped the boys to transition better.”

And finally there is a feeling of conflict between those parents who live by tradition and their children who want to break from it. Rinaldi, who was raised Roman Catholic, was surprised that both of her parents seemed okay with her living with Harris before the big day; but a survey conducted for this article revealed not everyone is so lucky. A few people even hid it from their parents to which Meredith pointed out, “And why would they do that—is it shame, maybe?” It seems this contention even places a black cloud over some would-be-happy couples’ courtship.

The underlying truth, according to Rev. Kronz is that there are four powerful components to a successful and loving union: the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. He believes we spend so much time and energy focused on the physical—losing weight for the big day or giving into temptation. “But what about our intellectual life? And more important, what about our spiritual life?” he asked. “I encourage couples to build their spiritual life. If I love God, that love with spill over to my wife. And if she loves God, that will spill over to our children and the cycle continues.” 

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