A friend of mine recently turned me onto reading Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish thinker and former communist who is now professor of sociology at the University of Leeds. The book I'm working through presently is Liquid Love—a collection of pithy observations on the significance of "connectedness" and relationships in modern society.
Among other things, an early topic of discussion for Bauman is the phenomenon of "living together," a cheap substitute for the more robust connection of "affinity," which, as he goes on to say, tends toward the solid bonds of kinship. Bauman's words on cohabitation are utterly incisive:
Living together may mean sharing the boat, the mess-table and the sleeping berths. It may mean sailing together and sharing the joys and hardships of the voyage. But it is not about passing from one shore to another, and so its purpose is not to deputize for the (absent) solid bridges. A log of past adventures may be kept, but there is only a perfunctory mention in it of the itinerary and of the port of destination. The fog covering the other—unknown, unmapped—shore may thin out and blow away, the contours of a port may emerge, a decision to harbour may be taken, but all this is not, nor is it meant to be, written down in the sailing papers. (Liquid Love, Polity Press, 2003, p. 30)
Last year, I wrote this short indictment of cohabitation from the perspective of common sense. And while I think it still stands, I've come to appreciate that the common sense appealed to isn't all that common, and that Bauman's insights break open what is truly lacking—and what is truly contemptible—in such an arrangement. The fact is, as Bauman rightly suggests, that "living together" is designed to circumvent stability and permanence insofar as these are merely incidental possibilities in relation to its core. (Quite a far cry from the reasons usually given—e.g., "We just want to see how things work out before making it permanent.") This makes cohabitation, for the most part, not only disingenuous, but also fundamentally opposed to forming real, intentional marital bonds. (The point is, as Bauman notes, "to walk through the days as if [the difference between progress and a dead end] did not matter, and so in a fashion that makes the issue of 'what is what' irrelevant.")
In the ever more marginalized case that a couple has clear intentions to marry (i.e., has put the process in motion through major commitments), but is simply biding time in the most economical way available, cohabitation still does a disservice to authentic, affinity-based relationships. Apart from the obvious affronts where fornication is involved, the very acceptance of such a murky yet total "sharing"—in the face of the permanence and stability of marriage—can only serve to debase the latter in the eyes of society (which, as we all know, hardly needs another excuse to think less about it). This is evident even on the most basic level; it is also at least partly behind the Church's insistence that cohabitation before marriage is impermissible (more specifically taught from the standpoint of scandal). Even when "nothing is going on," future married couples have a serious decision to weigh: short-term convenience versus a long-term difficulty in emphasizing and witnessing to (what might be called) the 'nuptial moment.'
The loss of affinity, Bauman suggests, leaves us in a tough spot regarding the possibility of kinship.
Lacking stable bridges for inflowing traffic, kinship networks feel frail and threatened. Their boundaries are blurred and disputed, they dissolve in a terrain with no clear-cut property titles and hereditary tenures—a frontier-land; sometimes a battlefield, other times an object of court battles that are no less bitter. Kinship networks cannot be sure of their chances of survival, let alone calculate their life expectations. [...] They are no longer sure of themselves, being instead painfully aware of how fatal for their survival a single false step might be.
[...] So here we are, vacillating and uneasily manoeuvring between the two worlds notoriously distanced from and at odds with each other, yet both desirable and desired—with no clearly plotted passages, let alone beaten tracks between them. (Pp. 30–31)
A very serious situation, according to Bauman, and one that's tough to debunk. Most importantly, a very good reason to think twice before shacking up.