Should We Put a Ring On It?

When two people fall in love, the question their love often raises – should we get married or just move in together? – brings up a whole bewildering welter of practical, moral, and spiritual considerations.

Conflicting advice is everywhere. “Sure, marriage is an institution,” some who resist marriage might say, “but who wants to live in an institution?” Others think of living together as marriage “lite,” without the benefits, protections, commitment and trust of a real union.

RELATED: What is a Baha’i Marriage?

So what’s the right course of action, practically and spiritually? Will either decision alter a couple’s chances of staying together in the long term? Does living together first – a “trial marriage” – make a subsequent actual marriage more or less successful?  What about the impact of those choices on children?

In this series of essays we’ll consider the pros and cons of marriage versus living together, and explore what the Baha’i teachings have to say about that important question in light of the quantifiable factual and scientific evidence about modern relationships.

The Baha’i Faith counsels couples in love to marry – but only after becoming fully acquainted with each other’s character. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, recommended (but did not require) marriage for Baha’is. Abdu’l-Baha lyrically praised good marriages, writing that among the Baha’is:

… marriage must be a union of the body and of the spirit as well, for here both husband and wife are aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory. This connection between them is a spiritual one, hence it is a bond that will abide forever. Likewise do they enjoy strong and lasting ties in the physical world as well, for if the marriage is based both on the spirit and the body, that union is a true one, hence it will endure.

What does all this mean for those in relationships, regardless of their religion or lack of one – and what spiritual advice can they glean about love and marriage from the Baha’i teachings? In this series of essays, we’ll explore those questions, but first, let’s look at the actual statistics on living together or getting married and examine a few of the facts about marriage in the modern age.

Modern Marriage and the Rise of Cohabitation

For young people in Western societies, the trend that first took hold in Europe and has now spread to the United States and other countries is cohabitation – living together as intimate partners without marriage. 

Across Europe, one large study reported in 2006, that the “first union” or cohabitation had begun to largely replace direct marriage (defined as a marriage with no prior pre-marital cohabitation). In Sweden, the study reported, “direct marriages were already very rare among the cohorts born in the 1950s and today they represent barely more than 5% of first unions of women below age 25.” The study added that “In northern and central Europe, direct marriage, which was still the dominant model for the 1950s cohorts, has rapidly lost ground; only 20% to 30% of first unions before age 25 in the 1965 birth cohort were direct marriages. In Finland, the rate is even lower.” 

Interestingly, the study also found that the Mediterranean countries stand out in Europe, “with an overwhelming majority of direct marriages and limited diffusion of non-marital cohabitation. Poland, a very Catholic country, also seems very attached to traditional marriage, whereas, in other eastern European countries, direct marriage is already slightly less predominant among the 1960s cohorts.” 

Across most of Europe, then, especially among the young, marriage has now very much become a minority practice.

American Marriage and Cohabitation Practices Today 

In the United States, the Pew Research Center, in an extensive 2019 analysis of the U.S. National Survey of Family Growth, has found that the share of American adults aged 18 to 44 who have lived with an unmarried partner – 59% – now surpasses the share who have ever been married, currently at 50%. The Pew studies also found, “Young adults are particularly accepting of cohabitation – 78% of those ages 18 to 29 say it’s acceptable for an unmarried couple to live together, even if they don’t plan to get married.”

Also, this trend means that today fewer Americans marry – in 1960, 72% of U.S. adults were married; in 1995, that number had declined to 58%; and in 2019 the percentage was 53%. Those numbers reflect two distinct realities – fewer people are getting married; those who do marry tend to do so much later in life than previous generations did.

In the United States in 1960, for example, the average marital age for women was 20, and for men it was 23. Today, those averages have risen to 28 and 30, respectively. This relatively rapid change reflects several major factors – increasing educational levels, the wide use of birth control, economic pressures, and the increasing equality of women.

Despite all of that, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that far fewer people now live together – 7% of American adults – than the 53% who are married. However, if the trend toward cohabitation rather than getting married continues in the United States, younger generations will increasingly forego marriage – and “putting a ring on it” will decline, as well.

Given all of this rapid, stark social change, most Western societies seem to be gradually moving away from a culture of marriage. Beyond the individual considerations each couple has to consider, what does that trend mean for society as a whole?

RELATED: Just Married? Start Building Unity When the Marriage Begins

Marriage as a Primary Pillar of Society

Is it more desirable for society if people get married rather than live together? Yes, much of the evidence tells us.

From a purely statistical measure, marriage tends to make relationships last longer, generate a more permanent sense of commitment among couples, foster more stable offspring, and contribute to the solidity and overall well-being of communities, the research consistently shows. When relationships result in children, those children generally tend to be happier, better educated, significantly advantaged economically, and more secure.

People generally recognize those facts. A majority of the American public believes that “society will be better off” if people marry, the Pew research reveals. When asked why, respondents generally agreed that “probably because they consider it a more stable environment for raising children,” according to an analysis by Time Magazine. 

The Baha’i teachings consider marriage a divine institution, and regard “marriage and the family as the bedrock of the whole structure of human society,” according to The Universal House of Justice. Baha’u’llah himself ordained marriage for Baha’is, and Abdu’l-Baha characterized marriage as “a holy institution and much encouraged in this blessed cause.” In one of the Baha’i marriage prayers, he wrote:

O peerless Lord! In Thine almighty wisdom Thou hast enjoined marriage upon the peoples, that the generations of men may succeed one another in this contingent world, and that ever, so long as the world shall last, they may busy themselves at the Threshold of Thy oneness with servitude and worship, with salutation, adoration and praise.

But what about moving in together as a prelude to marriage? We’ll explore that question in the next essay in this series.

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