Thirty years ago, as her wedding day approached, Princess Diana’s uncle tastelessly reassured the curious press that she was in fact a “bona fide” virgin. Today, on her son’s wedding day, almost every press outlet has reassured us that the royal bride’s virginity is no longer an issue. No one would expect the bride and groom to “adhere to an ideal that fell out of fashion several generations ago.”
As one droll headline proclaimed: Breaking news: Woman in an 8-year relationship not a virgin (a generation ago a million mothers might have reversed the quip: Breaking News: Woman who is not a virgin in an 8-year relationship). This is, we are told, a good thing.
“It’s probably best that they live together before making a commitment,” one random fellow interviewed by the AP opined. According to anonymous “Royal commentators,” cohabiting on and off with his girlfriend has put Prince William “in a better position than his father to make his marriage work.”
It’s easy to see the argument: This is a practice run and everyone knows that practice makes perfect. It’s a time to figure out finances and who will do the dishes four days a week, to learn conflict negotiation and perhaps even get a jump start on parenting. According to the National Marriage Project’s 2010 State of Our Unions report, a rapidly increasing number of couples take this approach. Today, more than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by a period of cohabitation.
The trouble is, cohabitation isn’t really practice for marriage. As any athlete can tell you: As much as you train, it never completely prepares you for the race. You’ll never perfectly simulate in practice the nerves and adrenaline that kick in at the starting block. The race and practice are simply not the same experience, and neither are settling down and what used to be called shacking up.
As Dietrich von Hildebrand recognized in The Nature of Love, the value of personal love is not simply determined by the objective value of the beloved, but by the contribution of self the lover is willing to make to the beloved, how far he “is willing to go to fulfill the demands of a particular situation. The point at which a person says, ‘it is impossible,’ and at which the obstacles seem insurmountable to him so that he feels excused in his conscience is reached sooner by some and later by others.”
The married couple proposes to one another the most extreme limits: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, ’til death do them part. The cohabiting couple, because they essentially choose not marriage, proposes something less. So in figuring out the finances and doing the dishes, the cohabitating couple is not practicing marital love; they’re just playing house.
One might respond that there are still reasons to cohabit, just as athletes still have reason to train even though the practice is an imperfect imitation of the race. But athletic training has a proven record of improving performance. Cohabitation does not.
At best, the State of Our Unions report suggests, the jury’s still out. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that cohabitation among engaged couples did not adversely effect marriages, couples who cohabitated before engagement were more likely to report lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce than those who lived together only after engagement or marriage. “What can be said for certain,” the report concludes, “is that no research from the United States has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.”
Of course, it’s not just the statistics. Sex is not like badminton: a game of human invention that can be played both in backyards with drink in hand or at frighteningly high speeds in the Olympics. Sex is a divine design and its purpose is such that taken out of its appropriate context, it is a lie and one more damaging than children playing house.
As John Paul II—the other cause of celebration this weekend—explained in his Theology of the Body, “the human body, with its sex, and its masculinity and femininity . . . includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence.” In their moment of communion, their finite but total self-gift to one another, husband and wife are the image of God as an “inscrutable divine community.”
Meghan Duke is an Assistant Editor at First Things.