'Reading' cohabitation

by Duncan Dormor (from his book Just Cohabiting? The Church, Sex and Getting Married)

from Signs of the Times, No. 13 - Apr 2004

The churches have tended to 'read' contemporary cohabitation as a rejection of marriage and a clear example of the waning influence of its teaching. Some of the more generous discussions have considered cohabitation to be a 'mixed bag', dividing cohabiting relationships into three camps based upon perceived motivations: the casual, the ideological and the committed. Those in the first category are not interested in the permanent commitment of marriage and are in their relationship for its immediate benefits only; those in the second consciously 'reject' the institution of marriage for a number of reasons; whilst those in the third group see cohabitation in some sense as preparatory for marriage, are committed to and envisage a future together, and having taken several steps along the way, might be deemed in most senses 'already married'. Naturally it is this third category that is viewed most positively by the Church.

There are, I would like to argue, serious difficulties with this rather neat typology: It conveys no sense of the relative importance of the various dispositions; it presents an over-rational, simplified and static conception of people's intentions; and it tends to lead to a lack of engagement with the practices and ideas associated with the first two categories. Most fundamentally of all, it isolates and perceives cohabitation as a problematic phenomenon completely separate from that of marriage. This is a quite bizarre 'ringfencing' activity in a society in which four in ten marriages, a great many solemnised in a Christian ceremony, end in divorce.

We might go on to enquire, for example, what those who 'reject' marriage are actually turning their back on? For some, it may be a conscious rejection of what lies at the heart of marriage, namely the possibility of a permanent, sexually exclusive relationship: Such people may quite consciously be engaged in a life in which one 'temporary meaningless relationship' devoid of significant commitment is replaced by another. For most people, however, I would suggest, it is not the aspiration for a permanent and sexually exclusive relationship that is being consciously denied (even if people are pessimistic about its realisation), rather it is the cultural 'clothing' of marriage that is being rejected. In particular, it is the 'institutional' dimension, the public and legal aspects of marriage which are often objected to in favour of an emphasis upon the private significance ascribed to the relationship by the couple. Such a rejection is part and parcel of a much wider rejection of the institutional elements of society and constitutes part of the ongoing three way tussle between State, Church and individuals over the 'ownership' of marriage. Here, those Christians who denounce cohabitation because its lacks a public dimension need to be cautious. What is pertinent about this criticism, from the perspective of the Christian tradition, is not the involvement of the State per se , but the public recognition of the status of the relationship by the community which is significant to the couple in question. That could take place in a church on a summer's afternoon, but it might occur at a housewarming party with the commitment that a joint mortgage brings, just as prior to 1753, the intention to 'live together as man and wife' was often expressed and witnessed in a range of social locations including the English public house.

Another reason that 'marriage' might be rejected is because of its historical associations with male authority and the sense that being married brings traditional roles for women and men, that the individuals concerned may wish to reject. Again such a rejection, which is equally an assertion of values of mutuality and equality, is not novel. Examples of women using unofficial forms of marriage to mitigate the discriminating aspects of formal marriage can be found in many societies from first century Rome to the nineteenth-century Lancashire cotton mills.

... For many (I grant not all), cohabitation is not only a period of provisional commitment, but also of movement towards, the asking of a question which expects the answer 'yes'. For a generation born into a mass divorce culture, there is a morally informed caution within the experience of contemporary cohabitation, which takes seriously the warning that none should enter upon the commitment of marriage 'lightly or selfishly'. At a time when marriage is widely seen as problematic, such caution merits intelligent engagement and encouragement from the churches, rather than a wagging finger.

Revd Duncan Dormor is the Dean of St John's College, Cambridge and lectures in Sociology of Religion within the Divinity Faculty and the Cambridge Theological Federation. Before ordination, he worked for the charity ONE Plus ONE: Marriage and Partnership Research with Dr Jack Dominian.