The great marriage debate

Love, flowers, food, music, stress, and happiness all combined into one day – a wedding day. While many people may fantasize about that perfect wedding day with the perfect dress or tux and a decadent cake, most aren’t ready to commit to what comes after.

Instead, cohabitation has become a popular choice.

Cohabitation has become more common in Canada since the 1990’s. It’s often seen as entailing fewer responsibilities at the legal, economic, and even emotional levels, and is perceived to be a freer lifestyle than marriage since it’s a relationship not bound by permanency.

Dr. Lara Descartes, an associate professor in Family Studies at Brescia University College, emphasizes that, “there is less taboo about living together before or without marriage than there used to be.”

“Cohabiting relationships are less institutionalized than marriage,” Dr. Descartes says. “That’s not necessarily bad, but it does mean that roles, boundaries, and expectations in the relationship may be less clear, and it seems to be easier to leave these relationships, as they do have a higher rate of dissolution than formal marriage.”

“Obviously you can say that you’re fully committed to each other before you get married, because we live in a culture where commitment is relative,” fifth year student Esther Daly, who is married, points out. “Even when people do get married now there’s still not that total commitment because divorce is so rampant. It’s not just your perspective on people living together before marriage but it’s your perspective on marriage that effects it.”

Although cohabitation has become more common, many people still say that they want to get married in the future. Popular culture also supports the institution of marriage considering that many movies are focused around a couple being engaged with the climax being the wedding day.

“[Marriage] still represents the cultural norm – even if divorce rates are quite high – and of course, it always makes a good story,” Western professor Christine Roulston, a feminist researcher and a member of the Women’s Studies and French departments, says.

“In literature and pop culture, there’s very often a focus on the lead-up to marriage and on the wedding day, as opposed to the actual experience of being married. Although couples moving in together rather than getting married is a cultural reality, it’s less appealing as a narrative or storyline.”

So why the fascination with marriage when people can simply move in together? Fourth year student Karima Betts, who has been with her fiancée for around three years, believes that it has to do with the human desire to be pursued.

“I think in every human being there’s a deep longing to be known and to be pursued, and there’s something about marriage that is almost like the ultimate pursuit in terms of a relationship,” Betts says.

“I think that it’s […] been distorted in pop culture, especially when you look at our celebrities – they get married, they get divorced then married again – and it’s not so special anymore. But I think that in our hearts and in our minds there’s still that longing for what it’s supposed to mean, which is forever pursuit of loving someone and choosing them […]. I think the movie business and pop culture plays off of that because that’s what people are fantasizing about.”

“Today’s society is interesting in terms of its relationship to marriage,” Roulston says. “On the one hand, it’s the norm for couples to move in together without being married, and yet any survey of people in their twenties will show that most of them do plan to get married at some point. So marriage is no longer connected to the traditional values of one’s first-time sexual experience or of starting a family, but it still has a narrative hold over our culture.”

A major idea that stems from the marriage versus cohabitation debate is that of commitment. Julia* is a 2009 Western graduate and has been living with her boyfriend, Jose*, since she graduated. They moved in together because it was the next step to take in their relationship and it was the most practical decision in terms of housing. Jose says that the level of commitment in their relationship wouldn’t change if they were to get married.

“The commitment is the same [as marriage],” Jose says. “I wouldn’t cheat on her nor would she cheat on me. The only difference would be financially in terms of the shared bank account.”

“It would only be different in that you decide to change your name,” Julia adds. “This is basically what being married is; this is what life would be like.”

Patrick and Esther Daly are fourth and fifth year students and have been married since August 2009. Patrick and Esther dated for a little under two years before getting engaged, and didn’t move in together until they said “I do.” Both of them felt it was important to fully commit to one another before they lived together, and their faith played a role in that decision.

“We’re Christians and we believe that God has set aside living together for something in marriage. Not because it’s a moralistic law, but just because He thinks that that’s the best and is the best that’s going to work out for [us],” Patrick says.

“The vow that you’ve taken to each other, and not only before each other but before witnesses and before God, so you’re more accountable to make it work,” Esther says.

“Even if you get bored or frustrated or angry with whoever you’re married to you’ll just have to work through it instead of just ending it.”

Since marriage is ideally a life-long commitment, Julia and Jose point out that it’s important to really know somebody before taking that vow, and it’s possible to learn about one another through cohabiting.

“Spending a couple of days with them and just seeing them every once in awhile doesn’t tell you what their habits are in a routine,” Julia points out. “The house is clean, but is it only clean because you’re going over?”

“The counter to that would be that ‘if you love the person, you’ll love them through [everything].’ I just think that it’s important to be realistic. You’ll learn about every day things, money, and who’s doing what. […] People get into routines and in order to become a part of a routine you have to spend time with each other,” Julia says.

Although marriage may be the ultimate goal for many people, we live in a culture where independence is encouraged and progressing as an individual is often considered what’s most important. Marriage requires a lot of selflessness, which may be why the number of successful marriages is dwindling.

“If you get married and then find out that they do something really annoying, then you have no choice but to work through it. But if you’re just living with the person, you might think ‘should I bother working through it?’ It makes for really cheap relationships because you don’t have to deal with anything,” Esther says.

“I find it’s a huge source of comfort because even when we do disagree or have issues we know that this is a permanent thing,” Patrick adds.

While the convenience and instant benefits of living with a boyfriend or girlfriend may be too great to pass up for some, there are some students like Karima Betts who have a passionate perspective on why waiting till marriage is important.

“I think there’s something about that relationship of living with somebody that should be special to the person that you marry. So if I have already shared all of my life with somebody, every aspect of who I am, then [if] I marry [not the same person] what’s so sacred about that relationship,” Betts says. “I want to save that for him and it’s my gift to him when I marry him – this is my life and it’s been sacred and saved for you, not for anyone else.”