You Get What You Pay For: The Reality of Cohabitation and De Facto Unions

Relationships of cohabitation have soared over the past decade, not only in the US, but around the world. Today between, 50% to 80% of couples coming for marriage in first world countries are living together before marriage (Markey 1999:3). More and more frequently, cohabitation is becoming a permanent way of carrying on a relationship, as opposed to a prior step towards getting married. Many de facto unions are formed without either of the partners seeing marriage on the horizon. Alternatives to Marriage, a US based association which advocates social recognition of de facto unions and offers tips for happy cohabiting, sympathizes with those who “would rather walk off a cliff than walk down the aisle.”

Nowadays the distinction between de facto unions and married couples is becoming more and more blurred, especially in countries where “de factos” have been given civil status. However, for as similar as the two living arrangements may seem (bed and board included), there is one difference that sets them worlds apart: commitment. Marriage has it, cohabitation does not; it’s that clear and it’s that simple.

When a man and woman marry, they make a public contract to form a new society together. They are now Mr. and Mrs. Jones, and when they fill out the forms at the doctor’s office, they will have to put their check mark in a different box when asked for their civil status. To say that marriage is an “institution” may make a person cringe (because of the negative connotation associate with this word), but that doesn’t make it any less true. Marriage is a social entity which has certain properties, commitments and responsibilities that define it as such and which, after having been freely and publicly assumed by the spouses, have a juridical value. What before was a choice has now become an obligation.

Why is this important? Why does public commitment make any difference? Isn’t it love that matters? Absolutely, but marriage, simultaneously speaking has nothing to do with love and everything to do with love, that’s why without commitment neither marriage, nor true love are possible.

Running the risk of being misinterpreted, love is not an essential characteristic of marriage, nor is it a pre-requisite. The local Justice of the Peace does not ask the bride and groom if they love each other; he asks them if they want to marry each other. A man and a woman are fully capable of assuming the rights and responsibilities proper to sex videos marriage, and the commitments these imply on a social and individual level without “love” ever entering into the picture. Unlikely, but probable; sad, but in certain cases, true. On the contrary, two people may love each other with burning passion, yet if they don’t publicly commit themselves to a life of mutual, total and exclusive union (i.e. marriage), they will never be man and wife.

But commitment for commitment’s is neither attractive nor, in most situations, advisable. The marriage commitment has everything to do with love. The decision to marry is inspired by love, accepted in love, and lived out in love. The gifts we bestow on newlyweds are but a shadow of the gift they have given to each other: the gift of self. In marriage the spouses make an exchange of persons: I belong totally to you, you belong totally to me. The two become one entity: socially, physically and juridically. Being someone’s spouse as opposed to their friend or live-in partner gives exclusive privileges because of the exclusive commitment made. The intensity and the totality of this commitment explains why married couples enjoy certain rights not shared by singles, for example: the right to adopt, the right to take medical decisions for their spouse in event of an emergency. With every right comes a responsibility and with every privilege a duty. There are those who view marriage as a “class struggle” relationship—who will dominate and who will come out on top? But those who think this way are more, often than not, single. Perhaps they even tried marriage once, twice or six times—if in each attempt they fought for power, then it’s no wonder the marriage failed and they were left with a sour image of it. Marriage isn’t about fighting to retain the upper hand; it’s about mutually giving in, not wanting to fight and not wanting to retain anything. It’s about understanding that one’s spouse, just like the children you make with him, is a gift and a responsibility. In making the commitment to marry, a man and a woman promise to love and treat each other as such, even when they might prefer to do otherwise.

But what happens in a de facto union? No formal commitment has been made, not between the partners, not before the civil authority. There are no duties, there are no responsibilities, there are no commitments, at least none that are juridically binding. It is essentially a walk-in walk-out relationship, and there is no obligation that it be otherwise. Contrary to marriage, the “two remain two”, deciding if, when, and how much of their person and their goods they are willing to share (always with the possibility of taking them back should the relationship go bad). Contrary to marriage, upon which the spouses enter with the intention of “till death do us part,” the de facto union rests on the presupposition of “till I’m tired of the situation.” How romantic.

Love demands life long commitment because love demands a total and exclusive gift of self. Love needs commitment because sooner or later the temptation arises to take back the gift. In marriage, the spouses decide to commit to each other regardless of circumstances. In de facto unions, the partners decide to let circumstances determine their commitment. Conditioned love is no love at all, and it makes for a highly unstable union. Small wonder the average cohabiting couple lasts but two years, and only 4% make it past the ten year mark.