Beliefnet
This is the fourth installment in an engagement-to-wedding journal by Michael Kress.

Stephanie and I sometimes feel like radicals, doing something so rarely done these days: We are waiting until we are married to move in together. Of course, a generation or so ago, our behavior hardly would have raised an eyebrow--precisely the opposite situation would have been noteworthy. The times have certainly changed.

To be honest, it is not a topic we wrangled over or even gave much consideration to. Maintaining separate residences until we are married was not even really a conscious decision for us; it is just the way we are.

That said, though, there are reasons behind our living apart. We were not blindly following some notion of communal standards, nor were we just trying to avoid gossip or scorn from our friends, relatives, and members of our synagogue. There are values and assumptions about the nature and meaning of marriage that underlie the fact that we will wait until we are married to live together.

Some people have suggested, not entirely in jest, that our notion of separate residences is a farce. We spend much of our free time together, try to have dinner together every night, often do grocery shopping together, and host guests together at one or the other of our apartments. She has become close with my roommates, and her building's super knows me enough to ask how the wedding plans are going.

We are indeed one seemingly minor step away from living together. But a step away is not the same as actually being there, nor is that step as minor as it might seem to some people. We see our wedding as neither a sharp break from what came before nor a continuation of the status quo. It will be the natural next phase in a progression, each plateau in our relationship building on what we created before, while at the same time introducing a new element to our lives together.

Some observant Jews refrain from being alone in a room with their future spouse and from touching him or her at all--even holding hands--before they are married. We did not consider this approach any more seriously than we considered living together. We feel that this attitude makes marriage too radical a departure from what preceded it, just as living together makes marriage not enough of a change. We don't want the beginning of our new life as a married couple to be marked by the shock of a too-jarring shift, but neither do we want it to be a simple continuation of what came before it.

This is because, for us, starting our household is in some ways the definition of marriage, so to have moved in together beforehand would have diminished the significance of our wedding--both spiritually and in practical terms. When we get married, we will move from our single-person living arrangements--I leaving my two roommates, Stephanie bidding adieu to her one-room studio--and share a new apartment that will be ours alone. We will start a home together in the deepest sense of the word. And to embark on this life journey, we are calling on our families and friends, our community, and our God to start us off, bless our union, and wish us well. Only then will we be truly prepared for the road ahead.

Like most Jewish couples, our wedding ceremony will take place under a chuppah, a canopy symbolizing the home a couple make for themselves. The couple walk down the aisle separately and enter the chuppah as single people; but after the ceremony, they leave together, signifying the transition from bachelor independence to marital togetherness. The imagery is powerful. It is only after being joined under the chuppah, the symbolic home, that we are ready for the real thing, the home with walls and a door, the one with joint bank accounts and shared household chores, the one that is truly ours.

Many people say they live together to make sure their partner is the right person for them, to test the relationship before the deep commitment of marriage is made. Living together, a couple is faced with questions and decisions the likes of which Stephanie and I have only begun to face together. Shouldn't we "test it out" before signing on to a lifelong contract? There is a lot of legitimacy to this argument, and I can understand why many couples go this route. Any two independent people blending their space, their belongings, their lives together so intimately are bound to face difficulties; isn't it better to test the waters beforehand, to ensure that those difficulties won't overwhelm the relationship?

Yet I have not read anywhere that couples who live together before marriage last longer than those who do not. We have eschewed this sort of trial in favor of moving in together only with the benefit of a solemn, lifelong commitment. We have spent a good deal of time thinking deeply about the meaning and sanctity of marriage, about the consequences and ramifications of the commitment we are to make on our wedding day, and we feel that this sort of deep introspection and intense discussion is the best preparation for any difficulties that may lie ahead. We thought that a "trial basis" implies that the couple is waiting for something to go wrong to convince them they shouldn't get married, and in such an environment, any disagreement could get elevated to the point where it sinks the relationship.

Waiting until after marriage to move in together, the stakes are higher and the commitment that much deeper; we will know well the seriousness of the journey we are traveling together, understanding the vital importance of working any problems out, seeing any difficult times through, and realizing that in every moment and in every situation we have our love and our marriage covenant to guide us. Without this covenant, it may be too easy to give in to the fragility and uncertainty of life, to give in and give up as easy as it was to move in together in the first place.

In the Jewish tradition, a home is called a mikdash me'at, which means a "little sanctuary." This suggests that a home is more than the place you go after work to eat dinner and sleep--rather, it's a place of sanctity and holiness, where spiritual values find their expression and religious rituals are held. It is, in some ways, more important than a synagogue. When we get married, religious symbols and items will have an integral place in our home: a mezuzah in our doorway, the Shabbat candlesticks on our table, and, most of all, our ketubah--religious wedding contract--on our wall. We look to our wedding ceremony to turn our future home into our own little sanctuary, where the sacred and the everyday meet.

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