In an age where more than half of marriages begin with cohabitation and the majority of cohabiters view their living situation as a step towards marriage (whether that would entail a "slide" into marriage or an active decision), waiting until after your wedding to live together has come to be perceived as, at least, counter-cultural and at most, foolhardy. Well-meaning friends and family might receive news of your engagement with, "So are you going to move in soon?"
It's tempting to answer questions like these with an emphatic "Of course not," followed by a discourse on Church teaching. Honestly, though? That approach might not win many converts to your point of view; or, if not conversion, at least a clearer, more reasoned understanding of your views. Engagement is rich with potential minefields of moral questions from those you know, which also makes it rich with potential opportunities: occasions to truly listen to and see another and to defy stereotypes of what evangelization is all about.
Truth speaks for itself
I've become convinced that in many ways, the what of arguments in favor of the Catholic faith are secondary to the how of the way you present them. It's true that the Church's position on waiting until you are a married couple to act like a married couple is nonnegotiable. It's in the best interest of the person's capacity for virtue and true freedom. Yet often, appeals to authority and argument often aren't nearly as compelling as appealing to the human heart.
What I mean by an appeal to the heart is this: when you're living out your words, actions, sexuality, and identity as they're meant to be lived--that is, with the intention of cultivating authentic love and self-sacrifice, eyes fixed on heaven--there is something so arresting, so captivating, so eminently noticeable. In the case of engagement, a couple who chooses to forego convenience and to practice sexual self-control embodies self-gift. Their relationship witnesses to the truth of who we are, and the truth that joy flows from love’s demands. Love centered on Christ and on the other speaks for itself, all without saying a word.
A way to explain why you aren’t living together before marriage
But words are most likely going to come up at some point. So what's a faithful couple to say?
It’s possible to create a non-religious ethos without compromising your religious beliefs--after all, we as Catholics believe that the Father’s plan for our freedom and happiness aligns with natural law and natural virtue. When someone asks why you and your fiancé have chosen not to live together before marriage, consider asking him or her what the point of serious dating and engagement actually are. Once a relationship is serious, both people are committed to each other to some degree, whether that commitment has been communicated verbally or through an engagement ring.
If, during that time, the couple is preparing for the long term (in whatever way that looks like to them--cohabitation for many secular couples, and ideally not cohabitation for faithful ones), it's important to know what strengths and good qualities your partner possesses, and how their virtues will help you yourself to grow in virtue. Someone who opts to live together before marriage is essentially saying she is okay living and sleeping with someone she isn’t married to. A wedding ring won't automatically change that outlook.
Granted, the likelihood of unfaithfulness in the context of this argument is a little extreme; there are certainly couples who live together and genuinely will good things for each other. Ultimately, though, the fact that your partner wants the fun trappings of married life but not the true commitment of having spoken marriage vows shows a lack of self-discipline and patience. Would most people want to be married to someone who could control their desires and say no, or to someone who couldn't?
Choosing to wait until after the wedding to move in is a way to grow in that discipline and self-control. So, the point of a committed relationship isn't to see how much one can get from the other--the convenience, fun, and romance of living together before marriage, that is--but how much one can give, by loving selflessly.
If you’re reading this and you are living with your fiancé, believe that the Father knows your heart and the intentions behind that choice. He loves you so tenderly, desiring only your best good in a specific, personal way. It’s not too late to change your living arrangements before your wedding or to make the choice to abstain from sex until you’re married. It’s a bold, hard, and possibly inconvenient choice, but one that will strengthen your marriage before it starts by refining your ability to lay your desires down for the sake of the other.
Check back in two weeks for the conclusion of this post, including practical ways to practice for married life without moving in together or diminishing the virtue and true freedom found in chastity.
Meantime, dialogue is so needed in this commonplace conversation, and we'd love your input: in your experience, has the question of cohabitation come up from friends and family members? Anything you'd like to add on the question of how to witness to the Catholic faith in an authentic way and how to answer questions about why you're waiting to move in together?