A few months ago I put a sermon suggestion box in the narthex. One person suggested that I answer this question in a sermon. “Is marriage a better choice than moving in together? And why?”
As I thought about the question, I realized that I had to address a more basic issue, first. So while I’ll get back to which is better—marriage or living together—before the end of this blog entry, I want to start with that more basic issue. What is the valuable, precious thing that we shoot for when we enter into a couple relationship?
That precious thing is “attachment.”
“Attachment” isn’t a word you find in the Bible. But the Bible has many stories that recognize the importance of attachment, including the one we read today, from Genesis.
God says, after creating this human person, Adam, that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone—unattached, so to speak. So what does God do? Well, he brings all the animals of creation to Adam. Maybe, thinks God, one of the animals will help Adam with his loneliness. But, says the writer of Genesis, none of the animals turns out to be a suitable helper for Adam. Adam was still alone.
So next, according to the story--a lovely, true myth, actually--God puts Adam to sleep, takes out one of Adam’s ribs, makes a woman out it, and brings her to Adam. Maybe the woman can help Adam with his loneliness.
And what does Adam say when he sees Eve? Well, listen. He says this woman is, “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He immediately feels completely and absolutely attached to her. In fact, Adam and Eve are so tight with each other, so into each other that it is as if the two of them share the same body. That is why the writer of Genesis says that when a man leaves his father and mother, he is “united,” to his partner, and they become one flesh—words that are used several times in the New Testament to describe marriage.
Now here is an important truth behind all this Biblical language about attachment. Humans have evolved to need other humans.
Consider children. They are born absolutely helpless. When my youngest son David was born, at home, I saw, first hand, how quickly he embraced his mother. Having spent nine months in her womb he seemed, in those first few moments, to reach for her with all his soul and mind--and especially his eyes and mouth. Being outside the womb was an incredible adventure for him, but one that he could cope with only by keeping the connection with his one safe place, his mother, physically and visually alive.
No wonder. Babies are born absolutely dependent. For years they can't feed or protect themselves. They can't move about and don't understand their environment. If it is cold, they freeze. Unless they are fed, they'll starve. Although babies don't understand any of this about themselves, their brain comes equipped to seek whatever they need from their caregivers. In short order, the baby extends his or her search for comfort and connection from just the mother to a small group of people: father, siblings, perhaps a godparent or babysitter.
One more example of attachment. We’ve all also seen this need in young children, too. Imagine a little girl exploring a slide on the playground, for example. Dad is sitting on a bench a few yards away. The little girl, even after successfully negotiating the slide once, with dad's help, constantly keeps an eye on dad to make sure that he remains close and available in case of trouble. The little girl wants to make sure dad is available to her, and feels more comfortable—more adventurous, even—so long as she knows his protective embrace is just a step away.
When babies or children don’t get that loving, emotionally rich bond—when parents are absent due to neglect, or an accident, or terrible long-term illness—many, many studies have shown that children often suffer lifelong consequences. They may become apathetic or have behavioral problems. Such children have a harder time connecting to others as adults, and with being empathetic.
As humans, we never lose this need to be attached to others. When we lose someone we’re attached to it is a tragedy and we’re injured. Think, for example, of Jesus on the cross. One of the saddest aspects of that death were the words he screamed out to his father, his abba, just before he died: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" Jesus' loss of his attachment to God was at the heart of his suffering. But we all have Adam’s need and Jesus’ need: for attachment, for people who will be safe harbors for us, for people who will have our backs no matter what, for people who, in the swift and raging river of time, will for us immoveable, dependable rocks we can safely stand on.
And a couple’s relationship, at its best, thrives to the degree that this sort of deep, emotional, attachment is real and dependable.
By the way, there is a great book on attachment I’m going to suggest that all of you who are in a committed relationship buy. It’s a bestseller called Hold Me Tight, by Canadian therapist Sue Johnson. Hold Me Tight is easily the most readable and best book on attachment available.
But now, having explained, in a few words, the biological and spiritual basis of attachment, I need, finally, to get back to the question I started with. Get married or move in?
Well, first, don’t forget that according to the story of Adam and Eve, they were deeply attached without a wedding—though I am not sure who they would have invited, should they have wanted one! But actually, what is true for Adam and Eve is mostly true all through the Bible. While we know that people were married because the Bible describes people as husbands and wives—we know just about nothing about how people became married. Jesus went to a wedding reception where there wasn’t enough wine, but what happened at the wedding ceremony itself isn’t known. Maybe, back then, they just moved in with each other. At some periods of Israel’s life, this was almost certainly how it was done. What I mean to say is that the Bible doesn’t prescribe that church weddings or civil registrations are how marriages have to be done. It is the idea of marriage or union that matters, not how it comes to be.
Second, if you are looking at a life partnership, making a promise to your partner that the partnership is exclusive, that it is for life, that it is unconditional—making such promises are good for attachment. Making promises cultivated deeper attachment. And of course, promises are what make a marriage ceremony a marriage ceremony.
Two people could do their wedding on a beach instead of a church; they could do their wedding dressed in bathing trunks rather than tuxes and gowns; they could do the wedding during lunchtime at work rather than at two o’clock on Saturday—as long as those two people make their promises to each other, it is a wedding.
So while I’d never say that living together is wrong—I’d add that making promises is beautiful, and great strategy for nurturing attachment.
Of course, you could make those promises in private, and many people do. There is nothing wrong with that. But making promises in public increases the weight and visibility of the promise. Making promises in public holds you accountable to the whole community of your family and friends for keeping those promises. And, making promises in public also offers, both before and after, a great opportunity to celebrate those attachment promises with friends and family.
Finally, beware of one danger of “just” moving in. Moving in without promises—whether public or private—moving in without making a commitment to each other, moving in to see if it will work—all these things make it much more likely that you will be moving in for just a little while. Recent research, reported on in the NYT for example, makes it abundantly clear that when two people drift into a live-in relationship—because it's cheaper, because they are staying over more often—when two people drift into a live-in relationship without the benefit of promises their relationship is less likely to last and less likely to develop strong attachment than a live-in relationship or marriage where the commitment that goes with making promises is front and center.
So, get married or move in? Both can be great. But which ever you choose, remember that if you’re looking for long-term, loving attachment, making promises is a great strategy.