By popular demand, OrthoChristian.com presents an English translation (slightly adapted) of Fr. Pavel Gumerov's answer to the question: "How can you explain to a young man or woman that sexual relations before marriage are a sin? How can you show them the harm that comes from these relationships?" from his book: Family Life in Questions and Answers (Sretensky Monastery [in Russian]).
It is very difficult to explain to modern secular young men and women why they should preserve their chastity. They think that the depravity that has become today's norm has always been the norm. But I remember a time, when it was the norm for a girl to preserve herself for one man only: her husband.
Let us begin with an explanation of the word, chastity. In Russian, the word is tselomudrie, which means literally, "integrity of thought," and consists not only in physical preservation (one can remain a virgin in body, but commit terrible acts of depravity in the mind; and to the contrary—one can live in a pious marriage and preserve his or her soul from sin), but also in a proper, wholesome, undisturbed view of the opposite sex, with purity of soul. Fleshly, intimate relationships between a man and a woman are not a sin in and of themselves, and they are even blessed by God, but only if they are carried out within lawful marriage. All fleshly relationships outside of marriage are fornication, and violate the Divine order; that means that the fornicators are going against God. Fornication is a sin, an iniquity, and a violation of the commandment that tells us that fornicators shall not inherit the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6: 9–10). That is, of course, if they do not repent and abstain from this sin. A person who permits himself to have sexual relations before marriage violates his own spiritual nature, and greatly weakens his will, opening the door to sin. He has already given in, and it becomes very hard to resist temptations. Not having learned self-restraint before marriage, that person will not have self-restraint within marriage, and he will not be "reborn" somehow miraculously. If it is just as easy for a guy to sleep with a girl as it is to take her to a movie, then he will just as easily give himself permission to look immodestly at other women when he is married, and then move on to adultery. The loss of one's virginity before marriage is a great loss; one can no longer experience those joyful feelings of something new—the purity of feeling that is given to chaste people. Sexual relations always leave a trace, and people who have had a number of partners before marriage will bring it all into their families. This does great harm to them and their loved ones. Former relations and sexual experiences can leave the most dramatic impressions, and can greatly hinder the development of good, harmonious relations in the family. As one popular song goes: "And when I hold her in my arms, I still remember you." It is very possible that when a young man "with experience" embraces and kisses his wife, he is thinking about a completely different woman.
The majority of men (with rare exceptions) want to marry a virgin and be the first man in the life of his beloved. No one wants to be the second, sixth, or fifteenth. Anyone would prefer the new, the untouched, the "unused."
One time I heard a talk given by an Orthodox psychologist, a woman, and she said that she had heard within the teenage milieu the term, "a used girl." This is quite accurately stated: the boys used her and found themselves another girl.
Any nation that cares about its people's health would care about their morality, and encourage abstinence, as was done in America after the painful results of the sexual revolution. In 1996, a program was instituted for teenagers called, "Abstinence Education." Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on this program. Unfortunately, I have not found any recent data, but in 2007 the program was still active. I think that it still is. Anyone interested in knowing what the fruits of the program were can easily find the information on the internet. The results shown there are impressive.
Besides the fact that this sin destroys one's spiritual and physical nature, it is also a violation of spiritual laws, which exist objectively, independently from our will, just like the laws of physics. You can refuse to believe that gravity exists, but if you decide to walk out of a fifth story window, you will kill yourself, or at least be crippled. By violating spiritual laws, we harm the structure of our soul, wound it, and later pay for it. If people do not preserve their purity before marriage, if future spouses cohabitated unlawfully before their wedding, if they betrayed their wives or husbands, their violation will not fail to leave a mark. In marriage—and generally in life—they will pay for this with sorrows, domestic squabbles and problems. I know no few examples of couples who began their sexual life before marriage, and very soon afterward, had extra-marital affairs and domestic conflicts.
Question: My son lives with his girlfriend. He says that he eventually wants to legally marry her, but doesn't know how he could take such an important step without them first getting to know each other, without living together. After all, many marriages fail. What can I say to him?
Answer: It is necessary to touch upon a very important theme, which has a direct relationship to mistakes made during the premarital period.
[Note: In modern Russia, the civil "registration" of a marriage, the marriage stamp placed in the passport by an official, is the legally valid marriage document, and not the religious ceremony, which is considered optional (a hangover from Communist times). This is different from other countries. In the United States, for example, a religious ceremony or a wedding performed by a judge before witnesses makes the marriage legal, if the couple has previously obtained a valid marriage license. In any case, Fr. Pavel is speaking about a marriage that is valid under the laws of a state or country. Of course, for Orthodox Christians, a wedding ceremony must take place in church.—Trans.]
Very many young people consider that those who wish to enter into marriage should definitely first try living a sexual life before marriage. They say that this will supposedly prevent mistakes, allow them to get to know each other better, and in general show whether or not they are sexually compatible—because all you hear about nowadays are hasty marriages and speedy divorces. There is a rule: practice is the criteria of truth. You can create as many theories as you want, and repeat all kinds of beautiful words, but when you put it to the test, everything becomes clear. We'll begin with the fact that with the rise in number of "test marriages", the number of divorces has sharply increased, while the number of registered marriages has sharply fallen. Why? Statistics show that only 5% of cohabitations or "test marriages" end in legal marriage. And if the young people actually do enter into lawful marriage after their experiment of cohabitation, those marriages break up twice as often as marriages concluded without that prior experiment. By the way, these statistics do not only apply to Russia. Specialists at Penn State University, Pittsburgh, studied the married life of around 1,500 American couples. It was shown that the couples who lived together before marriage are twice as likely to divorce. Furthermore, the domestic life of these families is marked by a large number of arguments and conflicts. For cleanness and accuracy, the research was taken from data collected on people of varying ages: from the 1960's, 80's, and 90's. This means that something is amiss. People keep on testing, and meanwhile the divorce rate only goes up. They want to get to know each other better, but they cannot maintain a stable marriage.
The problem is that in an experimental marriage, the partners do not get to know each other; they only confuse each other more.
Another widespread mistake of modern times is the so-called "common-law marriage." I will use this quite false and incorrect expression for the sake of convenience, and further on I will conditionally call such a marriage unlawful, not having been legally performed.
The falseness of this label is obvious. The term "common-law marriage" can only be applied to the thing that people who want to live together without legal registration are trying to avoid: a legally established marriage, registered in the applicable office.
This office exists in order to record the status of a country's citizens: when they were born, when they started a family, or when they died. When two members of opposite sex live together without legal registration, their relationship is called, in legal terms, cohabitation. (I wrote about this in my book, The Lesser Church, which has also appeared [in Russian] on Pravoslavie.ru.)
Why is civil registration of marriage needed? We live in a state, and we are its citizens. Whether we like it or not, we must observe the laws of our country. Everyone has a birth certificate, (in the U.S., a social security number), and many other identification documents. When a new person is born, his birth is registered by the respective legal branch, and a birth certificate is issued. This is an affidavit showing that a new citizen has been born, and he is to live according to the laws of his country. He has his rights, and will have his obligations. Marriage is also the birth of something new—a new "legal entity," a unified organism, a family. A family is not just our own affair—it is also a governed establishment. A family has its rights and duties; its interests must be defended, and its life is partially regulated by the laws of the land.
I often hear defenders of "common-law marriage" talk about the civil marriage document with strong antipathy and even hatred, as an "empty formality." But for some odd reason, they do not hesitate to obtain other empty formalities, such as deeds of property title, stock certificates, or signed checks. That means that they do not dread documentation itself, but rather the responsibility that marriage registration brings. If a person really loves, then the document is not a problem, and if it is a problem, that means there is no love.
One Russian actor, Mikhail Boyarsky, related that his wife once gave him an ultimatum: either they separate, or they get married. He said that he did not want to separate from her. "Then marry me," she said. "Why do I need that stamp in my passport? It doesn't mean anything," he said. "If it doesn't mean anything, then what is the problem?" she asked him. It's true: if you love someone, then there is no problem—you just go and register. But if you are not sure of your feelings, you will run from marriage as from fire. It must be mentioned that Mikhail Boyarsky agreed with his wife, Larissa, and they have been married for thirty years now.
Supporters of "free relationships" often like to cite that in ancient times, there were supposedly no registrations at all, and people lived as they liked. This is not true. Marriage has always existed, only legislative norms have differed. By the way, the presence of marriage is one factor that makes man different from an animal.
After concluding a marriage agreement, lawful wives and legitimate children also received their due class and property privileges. This is how a marriage differed from a sexual cohabitation. By the way, "primitive promiscuity" or hetaerism, (sometimes written hetaerism, meaning informal sexual relations that supposedly existed among archaic tribes) is just as much a historical fabrication as matriarchy. Hetaerism is defined in Wikipedia as: "A term employed by 19th century anthropologists (such as Johann Jakob Bachofen) to indicate a theoretical [author's emphasis] early state of human society characterized by the absence of the institution of marriage in any form… Sometimes known as 'primitive promiscuity'."
Of course, there has been much activity throughout history other than marriage, in some countries, outrageous depravity prevailed. In the Roman Empire, for example, concubinage—legalized extra-marital cohabitation—existed, but no one considered it marriage. Of course, there have also been varying forms of marriage, some of them absolutely unacceptable for Christians (like polygamy). But even in the case of legal polygamy, there were legal wives, whose status was quite different from that of a concubine or lover.
Besides the fact that "common-law marriage" is a false and deceptive thing, only illusorily implicating the existence of a family, it also does not allow the partners to put their relationship in order. Sometimes a "common law marriage" is called barren; firstly, because the cohabitants, as a rule, are afraid to have children. They can't make sense of their own relationship, so why add more problems, fuss, and responsibility? Secondly, "common law marriage" cannot generate anything new; it is fruitless in the spiritual and even emotional sense. When people create a lawful family, they take a responsibility upon themselves. Entering into marriage, people make the decision to live with their spouse for the rest of their lives, to go through all their experiences together, to equally share both joy and sorrow. They no longer feel separate from their other half, and whether they like it or not, the spouses have to come to unity, learn to bear each other's burdens, build a relationship, work together, and—most importantly—to learn to love each other. Just as a person has parents, brothers, and sisters, and he has to learn to live with them and find mutual understanding with them or his family life will become intolerable, so it is in a marriage between a husband and wife.
One modern psychologist in Russia called "common-law marriage" an open-ended ticket: "The partners always know that they have a ticket out, and therefore, if something isn't just right, they can give up and wave good-bye at any moment. With such an approach, there is no motivation to fully invest in a relationship; for it would be like remodeling a rented apartment."
That is why so few "common-law marriages" end in legal marriage. People from the outset do not perceive their union as something significant, serious, and permanent; their relationship is not deep. Freedom and independence are dearer to them. Even the years they spend together do not give them any assurance, or give their union any stability.
"Common-law marriage" can also be called a "school of irresponsibility". Two people have come together with no obligations. If they don't like it, they can walk out: the door is open to both of them. The partners came together for mutually irresponsible pleasure, and not in order to "bear one another's burdens." No one owes anyone anything, and the relationship itself does not offer any depth. Life in a "common-law marriage" can be compared with a joy ride on a bus, and the riders can get off at any stop.
But it sometimes happens that a "common-law marriage" turns into a sort of psychological slavery.
To expose the falseness and senselessness of their situation to people living in a "common-law marriage," Orthodox family psychologist, I. A. Rachimova, invites couples to take a test: In order to prove their feelings, they should cease all physical relations for a period of time (say, two months). If they agree to this, there are usually two outcomes: they either break up—if their union was based upon passion—or they get married, which does happen. Abstinence and patience allow them to look at each other anew, and to fall in love without passion mixed in.
I give similar advice to people in that situation. I explain why cohabitation without marriage is a sin, and what consequences it can have, and then I suggest, "If you have no serious intention to marry, then it is better that you part ways. Your present situation will not lead to anything good. If the young people want to legalize their relationship, I advise them to cut off their intimate relations until marriage. After all, there is more to a relationship than that—they can be friends, spend time together, and express their feelings and attachment in other ways. Then they can truly get to know each other.
The majority of today's young people, unfortunately, are out of the habit of thinking for themselves. They live by inertia, according to standards that are imposed upon them. As one popular Russian artist used to sing, "What do we see, other than the television?" Lady Gaga, or Madonna, telling us how to live? Young people just go on consuming, and never think about the possibility that after having "taken all they can from life" by age twenty, they will be incapable of taking anything more in middle age. There will be neither health, nor normal family life, nor happiness. This is all very sad, because youth is the time to lay the foundation of a fulfilling life in the future. It is the time to receive an education, start a family, to have children. It gets much harder to do all that later, and for many, it is impossible.
It is easy enough to be like everyone else, to not stand out in a crowd, to run after the lemming masses. I recall a conversation I had with the assistant inspector of my seminary. After I had done something wrong as a student in theological school I tried to justify myself, saying, "Well, everyone does it…" He asked me, "And if everyone jumps into the well tomorrow, will you jump in after them?" St. Barsanuphius of Optina said, "Try to live as God commands, and not like everyone else, because the world lieth en evil." He said this in the nineteenth century, but these words are even more applicable to our times.
So, what should people do who have not preserved themselves in purity and chastity because they were deprived of faith and tradition? The Lord heals our wounds, if only we sincerely repent, confess our sins, and correct our life. A Christian is given the chance to change himself and his life, although this not a simple matter.
Having stepped upon the path of correction, we must not look back to the past, and the Lord will definitely help all those who sincerely turn to Him. Yes, and one more thing: If your chosen mate has had negative premarital experience, you must under no circumstances ever get inquisitive about his or her sinful past, or reproach him or her for it.