This article is about the difference between a marriage and cohabitation (living together as partners without a marriage).

Source: The Monthly Record, 1996. 2 pages.

Building Without Cement

The General Synod of the Church of England has discussed whether cohabiting couples are "living in sin". This focuses attention on the important question: what is the difference between marriage and cohabitation?

In principle the difference is clear: cohabitation is informal, private, flexible and terminable; marriage is formal, public, fixed and permanent.


Marriage, especially Chris­tian marriage, involves public commitment to a permanent re­lationship — a commitment made in circumstances which lend solemnity to the occasion and provide sanctions for its con­tinuance. Thus there are vows and promises, solemnly and publicly entered into, made be­fore people and before God, signed and sealed. A couple enter into a new relationship, "exclusive of all others".

This is an outworking in our own cultural setting of Biblical ideas. The "leaving" of father and mother and the "cleaving" to one's wife (Genesis 2:24) cannot be other than public, clear and decisive acts. Marriage is a "covenant" relationship (Prov­erbs 2:17; Malachi 2:14) and a "covenant" by definition in­volves promise and commit­ment, confirmed by public ceremony. This requires that Christian marriage must be formal and public, and accom­panied with outward sanctions — such as we have in the civil and religious institution of marriage.


Cohabitation, lacking this public and solemn commitment, is, in principle, a private, flexible, unstable thing. In es­sence, cohabitation is like a construction made of building blocks, simply laid on top of each other. If this is done with care and planning, a substantial and permanent structure may in fact be erected. But, if as is normal, this mode of construc­tion is chosen to allow either of the parties to walk away from it when it no longer suits them, then a ramshackle, impermanent house, exposed to the possibility of a damaging collapse, is most likely to emerge.

In marriage, public com­mitment is the cement which binds the building blocks to­gether. Where a couple go to the bother of providing the cement, there is much more likelihood of building with care, because their intention clearly is to construct something permanent. Some of the construction may be ill-planned, but at least the cement is there to keep everything to­gether.

This helps to explain how cohabitation cannot easily be simply turned into Christian marriage. If you start by laying building blocks one on top of the other and then decide you need cement after all and you use it to patch up what you've already done, you can't expect the same solidity as you would have if you had used cement from the start. No wonder some ministers insist that cohabiting couples separate before they take Christian mar­riage. Knock down what is badly built and construct again, adding from the start the ingredient lacking before.

In Practice🔗

To see marriage and cohabitation in their essence is important and useful. We must consider principles before we address practice. In framing legislation, we need a clear grasp of principles else the laws of our nation will simply reflect the practice of our people, and pragmatism rather than principle will mould our national life.

But we should not be so na­ive as to think that principle and practice coincide. In essence, marriage and cohabitation are significantly different; in prac­tice, they can sometimes be very much alike. Sometimes cohabi­tation produces an apparently happy and permanent relation­ship; sometimes marriage pro­duces a very unstable and un­happy situation.

In dealing with cohabitees, we must exercise the utmost tact and be alive to the real nature of the relationship. We must equally be aware of the strains and tensions that shake struc­tures which were intended to be permanent in the first place. Each case must be treated on its merits.

Faulty Cement🔗

The reasons why marriage and cohabitation seem in prac­tice to produce similar results are no doubt manifold. But one reason is that the cement has been diluted and its power to bind reduced. When marriage is subjected to the pressures of modern society it too crumbles because the cement is inade­quate.

The cement has been diluted with the wrong proportion of sand which takes away its co­hesive abilities. I refer to the divorce laws. When a couple take the marriage vows, they are required to make a lifelong, exclusive commitment to one another. A promise, you might think, is a promise. If a party fails to keep a promise, he would, in any other area of life, make himself liable to action for breach of promise. Not so in this case. In man's sight, if not in God's, a person may be flagrantly unfaithful to his promise and, not only will he not be sued for breach of promise, he may, unilaterally have the promises that he took revoked, subject only to suitable financial conditions being worked out.

Of course, the vast majority of couples take the vows of marriage in good faith, without thinking of divorce laws. But when the building process becomes difficult, there comes the discovery that what seemed to be binding isn't so binding after all. The cement is made almost entirely of sand; what has been constructed can easily be dismantled. If that is the quality of the vows taken, then marriage and cohabitation don't seem so very different.

Not only is the cement diluted, it is applied in a very niggardly way. Now, marriage ceremonies vary and the mental attitudes of couples vary. But do I detect that the religious bit of the proceedings and the instruction that backs up the vows are meant to be got over quickly as possible?

We are not against wedding festivities — they can add to the sense of importance of the occasion — but we do wonder if they have been carried to an extreme. The bride's dress; the number of bridesmaids, flower girls, page boys and their attire; flowers and photographers, videos and cars; the meal, the cake, the toasts, the band; the going away outfit, the passport, gifts for parents, tips for the staff — is there any time left for God? The vows and what they mean are the central part of a wedding. But are they central to the minds of the participants?

Can we not get back to some simplicity which puts first things first? Otherwise the layer of cement which we smear on the basic building blocks of mar­riage will be so slight that it will not provide the cohesion needed to stand the stress of time.

We may well lament how like each other marriage and cohabitation have become. One way we can begin to remedy that is by making marriage in prac­tice what it is in principle.

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