Dear Jeff and Tammy,
The world we live in has made lasting relationships difficult. There is a lot of insecurity and young people have become afraid of commitment. So many things can go wrong. 50% of marriages end in divorce. You might ask: Do I really know the person I am thinking of committing my life to? Can I trust them? Can I trust myself? What if he's not the one for me? Having kids is also a huge responsibility. I want to finish my education first. Financially there are college debts to take care of ... and the list goes on. Taking on a life long commitment with somebody is not an easy decision to make.
Our culture gives an apparently easy solution to this complicated situation. Why not minimize commitment by allowing a way out the relationship when it's convenient? Living with another person and being sexually active outside of marriage is that kind of solution. Because I care about you both and want your relationship to succeed, I feel the need to warn you about the dangers of taking your relationship in this direction.
I know that you both believe in God and that faith still means something to you although you may have taken distance from Him at this point in your lives. It's important to remember that living together and being sexually active before marriage is fornication (a mortal sin) and has disastrous consequences for your relationship with God and the salvation of your souls. At the same time I don't think it's fair for me throw the Ninth Commandment at you without giving reasons why cohabitation is harmful to your relationship.
Cohabitation is attractive because it fulfils a real need people have to love and be loved. Here is the problem: in cohabitation, love is often confused with fulfilling a need you have for affection and love. This is when a relationship becomes selfishness disguised as love. You want to live with this person because, for some reason, you're not ready to commit your whole life in marriage. Yet you're alone, and still have this need for love. When you find somebody else or when that relationship doesn't satisfy your need for love and affection, you move on. It's no longer convenient to be with that person. Convenience and need are not real love and self-giving, even though the physical feelings of affection are there. You are using that person to satisfy a personal need.
Another pitfall is to think that cohabitation is a good way of testing out marriage, a good way of finding out more about your partner and seeing if you were made for each other. Frankly, the only sure way to know that you can live with this person for the rest of your life is to actually live with that person for the rest of your life. There is no way of testing a lifelong commitment. Life is full of surprises and it's impossible to foresee all the joys and bumps in the road that will come with living together. Life really changes people; having a child, a bad turn in health, a mid-life crisis, a new job or career. You can't foresee these changes. What truly matters is that each one is ready to love and sacrifice feelings, preferences, habits, likes, and dislikes for the other when necessary. That's a quality you can find without having to live with someone before marriage.
Beware of believing that having sex is a necessary part of building a friendship before marriage. The physical affection you have for another person can easily be confused with love. Couples who get divorced are often those who have built up their relationship before marriage on love confused with sex, rather than on commitment and self-giving. In fact, 80% of the marriages that end in divorce are people who were sexually active or cohabiting before marriage. Even though sex is a means to strengthen one's affection for another person, it is not the essential love that will help you to stay together, especially if you choose to get married. As the years go by, the physical affections naturally die down, and couples discover they had built their relationship on feelings rather than love. They say they don't love each other anymore, but often it's just that they have gotten old, the honeymoon is over and they don't feel love anymore.
Love is more than just a feeling. It's a commitment — a decision of self-giving you make to another person that you live by honoring it, even when it is demanding. A mother is a loving mother not when it's easy and rewarding to be so, but when she has to make difficult sacrifices for her child's good. It's the same thing in a relationship. To abstain from sex before marriage helps you to grow in the self-discipline you will need to give yourself totally to the other person and to your children despite life's troubles, the absence of rewards and the ups and downs of feelings. Feelings are good, but sometimes they can blur your judgment of the situation and make you overlook the real task of getting to know the other, and of getting ready for real commitment. Chastity will help you to focus on the essential love of your relationship. Chastity doesn't mean being cold and having no affection for the other person. It simply means keeping the sexual intercourse kind of affection for marriage.
Cohabitation is also dangerous because it entails settling down with someone who may not be the one for you. Many men and women I know have superficially spent the best years of their lives living with four or five partners, and by the time they finally got serious about getting married and settling down to have kids they had dedicated their best child-rearing years to partners, but not to their spouse. Being sexually involved with somebody makes you less free to make that difficult decision of leaving a relationship because it entails strong affections. It puts your life in a holding pattern. Communication often breaks down when there are problems, because you don't want to rock the boat, and so the problems are put off for later. One, two, three years of life pass by, the relationship finally ends, and it's on to the next person.
If you are not ready for a marriage commitment, then why live as though you were married? Sex by nature is meant to express a lifelong commitment to another person and helps a married couple persevere in that commitment. You are sending the wrong message to the other person. In your physical relationship you are saying "I am all yours and you are all mine" but cohabitation or sex before marriage is saying "Tonight I am yours and you are mine, but without guarantees about tomorrow night or next week." It makes sex something cheap. If you've had it with four or five other people, how can it mean anything special once you do get married?
I just wanted to end by saying that the family is under serious attack today. The recent legislation legalizing same-sex marriages, the rise in divorce rates and marital affairs, the adoption of children by same sex couples are signs of this. All of this is happening because few people are taking marriage seriously and they are not taking the means to build strong commitments. How many children are born into broken homes with parents who don't have the discipline they need to raise their children?
Chastity is not easy to live; especially when marriage may be a few years down the line. I know it's difficult, but it's not impossible! It will greatly enhance your relationship by building up that essential love that you will need later on. It's a self-discipline that will seriously reduce the chances of divorce later on.
I love you both very much and I am praying for the continued growth of your friendship. God bless!
Br Richard Tardiff, LC, of the Legionaries of Christ, is studying for the priesthood in Paris, France.