Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I'm a college student of 21, and engaged to a 30 year old man with whom I've been for two years. He's very respectful and loving and I plan to marry him after I graduate (in a little more than an year), but chances are we might move in together before that. Right now, he lives in another city almost two hours away, so seeing each other ends up tiring and consuming—time and money-wise.
The thing is, our parents will probably oppose. My mother has had terrible experiences with being a single mother, and then moving to an unknown country to end up in a psychologically abusive relationship, plus has very traditional views (i.e. sex after marriage). His parents are traditional Christians. None of them know my fiancé and I have already had sex. How can I bring up the possibility of moving in together without gaining opposition from the people we expect the most support?
In short: you can't.
But to add more context to that: one of the great-but-horrifying things about being a grown-up is that you both get to and have to make your own decisions. You are legally an adult -- though, I define that differently from being a grown-up -- and you are planning to make two very grown-up decisions by moving in with your fiancé and getting married. And though you (and your fiancé, presumably) desire the support of your families, you are making at least the former decision knowing that it'll be one they might well not support because of their religious views.
And, that's okay. Your family isn't going to support every decision you make, and their views aren't necessarily going to be your views. One of the suckiest things about being a grown-up is that you learn that, to be happy, you have to make the decisions that are right for you and that, at least some of the time, those decisions aren't going to make your loved ones happy.
That said, there are a few potential concerns you should address for yourself and in your relationship before you bring the cohabitation announcement -- notice I say "announcement" and not "discussion" -- to your two sets of parents.
The biggest concern that you don't address in your letter is whether your fiancé shares his parents' religious views, or whether you share your mother's "traditional views" about the timing of sex and marriage. I mean, yes, obviously, you've had sex without being married, but that doesn't mean that both of you have ideologically rejected the ideas with which you were raised (which is very different). But, before you really decide to move in together, it's important to discuss your faith and relationship models since, as you note, all of your parents will object and it'll be very important for the two of you to support one another in the face of those objections. If one or both of you still feels like you guys are doing something "wrong" by either having sex or moving in together, the objections of your parents will be much harder to weather with your relationship intact.
The second concern is that you position your potential cohabitation as something that you will do to lessen the time- and money-burdens of a long-distance relationship. Now, let me preface by saying that I totally get the burdens that physical distance can place on an intimate relationship, especially when money is tight and there are roommates with which to contend on one end or another. But alleviating those burdens isn't the best basis for beginning a live-in relationship. As you say, the visits now are very "consuming" -- which you relate to time and money -- but long-distance reunions are also very emotionally consuming. In a long-distance relationship, you miss your partner more and more as you are apart, and then, when you are back together, you have a whole new honeymoon phase that lasts until you must separate, touching off the same cycle. Your relationship will function very differently in the same city, even if you aren't living together, and it's really something to consider thoroughly before you try to start a different phase of what will already become a different relationship with your fiancé.
Cohabitation is, to one degree or another, the beginning of the end of the honeymoon -- you go from your time together being really special to it being really mundane, which can feel even more abrupt when your previous experience is very cyclical. It's not just having access to the other person on a more regular basis, which could be achieved by simply living in the same city, but constant access to everything about the other person -- from the pleasantness of someone else making your coffee in the morning to the unpleasantness of discovering that onions give him or her the most unpleasant, bed-shaking, nose-hair-singing gas you've ever experienced. It's sharing intimate details you didn't even think about needing to disclose, and sharing financial burdens in a way you didn't understand before, and sharing stuff you might not even like sharing. None of this is to say there aren't lots of benefits to the right cohabitational relationship, but the potential consequences (good and bad) go way beyond just the benefits of, effectively, convenience. Living with someone seems convenient right up until the first fight, or when you try to figure out who is sleeping on the sofa after a big blow-out, or the moments you wonder if this is really who you want to be with -- even if everything ends up working out.
Finally, let me just put out there what a lot of readers will be thinking: there is a pretty big stage-of-life difference (I'm not saying "age difference," because age is just a number) between you and your fiancé. Now, that may be more normative in your community -- religious or otherwise -- or country and it may be something you two have already acknowledged, discussed at length and mutually decided is a non-issue and, if so, great. But I can tell you that if I'd brought a 30-year-old fiancé home at 21 and told my parents we were moving in together before I finished school, they would have raised all kinds of objections -- up to and including, I assume, the sex before marriage one -- that would have been a coded way to object to the stage-of-life difference and the importance to them of me finishing my education. Maybe they would've been right, and maybe they would've been wrong to object to that, but it would certainly been a factor in the heated discussion and it's one you should take into account both for the sake of your relationship and for your parents' reaction.
I bring these concerns up because the best way to bring a life choice to your parents to which they will object is to do so completely comfortable in having made that choice. Being completely solid and walking through all of the major potential objections with one another (and yourselves) in advance means that you won't be opening up a debate or discussion with your parents, it means you will have a shot at not getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of the exact intimate acts in which you and your fiancé may or may not have engaged over your parents' religious beliefs (or even your own), and it means that you'll have had a lot of serious, grown-up discussions with yourself and your fiancé before you go to your parents and ask them to support a choice you are making not because you are a legal adult, but because you are a grown-up.
Plus, I hate to tell you, there is a big difference between both your sets of parents really, truly believing that a 21-year-old woman is in a long-distance-with-visitation relationship with a 30-year-old man without there being any sex, and deciding that they are going to pretend that they believe that. They might not want to acknowledge it, they might prefer to pretend that everyone involved is still a virgin, and they might really hate the fact that your cohabitation plan puts a crimp in their preferred version of reality, but you might not be dropping as big a bombshell as you think. Just some extra food for thought.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com