Last week, some Republican Florida politicians pushed back against one of their number who wants to repeal some laws against unmarried (heterosexual) couples that live together but aren’t married. This law has been on the books since the late 1800’s but isn’t enforced too often. And while some politicians are hesitant to talk about it, State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R) said, “I’m not ready to give up on monogamy and a cultural statement that marriage still matters.”
He might be surprised to hear that I agree with him that I want marriage to matter. But I don’t think it means the same thing to both of us.
What marriage means to me is people making a commitment to each other to support, care for, and love each other. It means choosing to live your lives together, to grow together, and to learn how to do the things that scare you because your partner needs you to. It means sacrifice, in the original sense: to make sacred, rather than to give something up unwillingly. And it means leaning into your fears and your edges in service to your relationship. That’s what marriage means to me.
Here’s what I think marriage doesn’t have to mean, unless the folks doing it decide that it does:
- a piece of paper from the court
- only two people
- the approval of a religious institution
- having a sexual relationship
And in any case, there’s no reason why “cohabitation” needs to get in the way of marriage. For some people, it’s a great way to see how compatible you are. Or it’s a way to share living expenses if you don’t want to get married. And in any case, why should it matter to you what someone else does? How can their living together threaten your marriage, if it’s really solid?
Some folks will point out that people who lived together before marriage are more likely to cheat or divorce, but such research falls into the trap of mistaking correlation and causation. Isn’t it possible that those folks would have had those same difficulties, even if they hadn’t lived together?
In all fairness, the authors of that article suggest that one reason for the connection between cheating & divorce and living together is inertia. When couples end up living together without a strong commitment to each other, it’s harder to break up since changing living arrangements can be a bigger hurdle than breaking up while living apart. (Staying together for the sake of the apartment, rather than the kids.) If people aren’t living together, then getting married is a bigger shift, which might tend to encourage more self-reflection.
That may be true, but that still doesn’t justify having a law against living together. Rather than forcing people into a single model of relationship through externally-created laws, I’d much rather foster a culture that makes room for people to create whatever relationships they want. I’d like to live in a world that honors and holds space for anyone who wants to stand in front of their community and families and commit to each other, in whatever way they choose. And I want to see a society that teaches everyone how to follow their heart and discover their potential, both individually and in whatever relationships they build. Of course, that’s a lot harder than giving people one choice and telling them that’s all there is. But it’ll be a much happier world when that’s what marriage means.