Cohabitation Before Marriage in the South Caucasus

While dating amongst young people in the South Caucasus is, as a rule, more or less accepted, the development of a relationship often leads to the decision of either getting married, or simply living together. The second option has long been noticeable in the South Caucasus, however it can often give rise to a number of questions, misunderstandings and often anger and annoyance.

While dating amongst young people in the South Caucasus is, as a rule, more or less accepted, the development of a relationship often leads to the decision of either getting married, or simply living together. The second option has long been noticeable in the South Caucasus, however it can often give rise to a number of questions, misunderstandings and often anger and annoyance.

Are They Married Or What?!

Many couples choose not to register their relationship with the government; neither in a church nor in a mosque. But a number of them do hold a feast, after which all of their acquaintances and friends know that the young pair has decided to solidify their relationship. In this case, relatives and friends consider the couple a married pair.

For example, Rena (36) and Mirish (43) Musayev from Azerbaijan have been living together for almost 20 years already. But they have never been officially married. Their case is particularly interesting because this devoted couple shares the same last name given that they are distant relatives. And so there was no real reason for them to be officially married, because their children would receive the father’s last name either way.

Such couples can be found not only in the capital, but also in the regions of the country as well. For example, Elmir, who is a day – worker, and his partner Gulmira, a housewife, have been “married” on a non – legal basis for 4 years already. The couple from Imishli did not have much money to spend on a wedding, and they didn’t even think about going to city hall to register their relationship.

And so they snuck off to Baku, to Elmir’s relatives, who accepted the couple and thought of Gulmir as “a girl, kidnapped by Elmir”, which essentially meant that she was his wife. After everyone in their home village found out, the pair returned home as wife and husband. In such a way, the couple was able to legitimize their relationship in the face of society, without having to jump through all the legal hoops.

Elmir says that he didn’t even think about registering his relationship with Gulmir at city hall because in his childhood he heard that people that want to get married have to have a big wedding, but that city hall is just a formality. Now the couple plans to legalize their relationship later this year, and only because Gulmir is expecting a child.

Ordukhan, a village elder from Imishli, explains marriages without the signing of an official documents by the fact that in the South Caucasus, a number of people live far away from administrative centers and government institutions. And for that reason, the need for a local “officialness” for marriages arose.

“We used to live in yurts. We lived in closely – knit communities. When someone wanted to get married, he held a feast, and if the groom had enough money, he would “kidnap” his bride”, and the community would consider them a married pair. We were too far away from papers, lawyers and government institutions to do anything else. And now this tradition continues. What’s so bad about it. . .?”

Ordukhan says that he cannot understand the idea of a couple simply living together.

“If a man brings home a girl, that means she’s his wife. How could it be anything else?”

Indignation of the Older Generation

However, such arrangements can be problematic when a couple simply decides to start living together, without any societal announcement or display of intention. Cohabitation is by itself a rather contentious theme in the South Caucasus, and is especially looked down upon by many members of the older generation.

43 – year – old Asmik Mkrtchyan, who is getting ready to marry off her daughter in two weeks time, is categorically against the idea of a couple living together out of marriage.

“My husband was also against the idea. He would never let it happen. Now we are getting ready for a wedding and we are incredibly happy. We were waiting for this our entire lives. We brought her up, instructed her…do we not deserve this moment? We know who she is marrying, and into what kind of family we are sending her.”

Армине Мкртчян
Armine Mkrtchyan

But why do some people have difficulty in coming to terms with the idea of a couple simply living together without an official document? Is it only the desire to see young people in flattering suits and pretty dresses amongst a number of guests?

Asmik Mkrtchyan says that the problem with cohabitation is that girls can end up short – handed in such an arrangement, without any guarantee of her future well-being.

“What guarantee does a girl have that her new ‘husband’ won’t simply try ‘to get what he wants’ and then say, ‘it’s over between us!’“ she asks.

Other interviewees said that though this partially true, even married women might end up in a similar situation: the number of divorces in the South Caucasus is growing not by the day, but by the hour.

According to the National Statistics Committee of Armenia, in the first month of this year alone 7739 marriages and 1753 divorces were recorded. This means that almost every forth marriage ends in divorce. In Georgia, 21845 marriages were recorded in 2006, and 2060 couples separated. In 2015, however, 29157 marriages were recorded, and 9112 couples divorced. The same data set for Azerbaijan shows that since 2009, the number of marriages has been declining, and the number of divorces has been rising. In 2010 in Azerbaijan, there were 9061 recorded divorces; however, in 2015, this number reached 12764.

So then what is the big issue if young pairs simply want to coexist together without official registration?

Shame and Dishonor

R. Isayev, the 33 – year – old father of two girls works as an accountant.

He says that he would be disgusted by the idea that his daughters could sleep with someone who is not their husband, and who do not think of them as their wives.

“This would be a shame and dishonor for the rest of one’s life. We have our own mentality, our own morals, which we have been observing for centuries. How can a woman sleep with a person who is not her husband? How will I be able to appear in public, how will I call this person who lives with my daughter? If he is not my son – in – law, then who is he? Excuse me, this is not a ‘civil wife’, this is something else, and you know what. This would shame me, my relatives would spit in my face. I would either kill her, or reject her completely if one of my daughters did that.”

A number of South Caucasian women look at the idea of cohabitation and domestic partnership with fear as well. Having opened a discussion on this topic on Facebook, we received the following replies from women from the South Caucasus:

“I wouldn’t agree to such an arrangement: if it didn’t work out, my relatives would never take me back. And where would I live then? On the street? No thanks. I have different traditions in my family. If you get married without a document, everyone will wag your finger at you. First your parents would curse you, and I won’t even mention all the gossip….And I don’t really want to be a mistress or a cohabitant. I want a family, and love. And I want a wedding, and a signature and an engagement party…” said one resident of Baku.

One woman from Yerevan wrote, “Living with someone out of marriage is no crime. It’s a shame that I understood this only in my old age. 30 years ago a regular kiss would have been considered a crime if it wasn’t from your husband. But why should that be? Who decided that? One has to live practically…we only have one shot at life!”

Nina, a 53 – year – old cashier from Georgia has a young daughter who works at a large company as a manager. Her name is Inga. Nina says that when her daughter said that she wanted to live with her boyfriend, she didn’t object, but put down a condition:

“Put on a little soirée, and go to church. You don’t need city hall, I told her. If you separate later on, I’ll be able to tell my friends that you got divorced. But if you don’t, I won’t be able to tell my friends and those around me what happened with my daughter…”

As we can see, the idea of cohabitation and domestic partnership exists in the South Caucasus, but often under the guise of an official or religious marriage.

However, there are some individuals who choose to completely forego these societal expectations.

“I dreamed of a white dress, but I decided to live like this, instead…”

33 – year – old Lusine Soghomonyan is a film director who grew up in a traditional Armenian family. Her parents dreamed of a white dress for her, and a large and authentic Armenian wedding. But this remained just a dream, because one day Lusine decided to start living with her boyfriend.

“I called my parents and I told them that I was going to stay with Artyom, and that I would live with him. For a week, no one from my family called me. My father was furious – he didn’t believe in the idea of cohabitation. He didn’t speak to me for a month, but then he softened up a bit. For a while before I began living with Artyom, I brought up the idea of living with him on numerous occasions. But my parents always answered that I shouldn’t even to dare to think about it.” says Lusine.

It’s already been three years that she has been living with her 44 – year – old husband, Artyom Movsisyan, who is an artist.

Lusine Soghomonyan and Artyom Movsisyan

We have a son, so you couldn’t consider it amoral. . .

Curiously or not, men tend to consider the idea of cohabitation much less frightening or strange than women do. The patriarchal foundations of society, such as the saying, “he’s a man, he can do what he wants”, seem to apply here too.

Zahir from Baku is 27 years old. He’s a lawyer, and married. But before the wedding, he lived with another girl for almost two years. Zahir says that there were of course more problems for the girl than there were for him.

“She told her relatives that she lives with her girlfriend. And she was able to get away with this because she lived in a neighboring town.”

But Zahir didn’t really hide his living situation from anyone. His mother suspected him of living with a girl, and a small scandal took place in the family. But Zahir was immediately forgiven.

“In the Caucasus, men are forgiven such transgressions. For a man, there is nothing shameful in this act. Maybe it is shameful for parents or for girls, but not for boys.” says Zahir with a smile.

He says that if he were a girl, then he would of course have never agreed to such an arrangement, for which some women have even been murdered in the past.

My mother had such hate in her eyes…

25 – year – old resident of Baku Vasila Huseynova lived with her boyfriend for two years.

Vasila says that she was able to make such a decision only because her parents lived in a far – away village, and because she thought that they would never find out that she was living with someone.

“My mother would have had a heart – attack. My father wouldn’t have left the street out of shame, and my brother would have killed me. For two years I was able to fool my parents – I told them I lived with a girlfriend. And during these two years, I lived in full time fear, worried that a relative would find out where I lived, look in, and see another man there in the home…”

Vasila says that her parents wouldn’t have cared whether she was happy with him or not – all that was important for them was that it be legal. She once asked her mother how she would react to the idea of her living with her boyfriend.

“My mother clearly let me know that she hated the idea, and that if I were to do something like that, she would strike me out of her life. She said, that a wife has either a husband or a. . . She had such hatred in her eyes, that it was even scary…” shared Vasila.

But Vasila broke up with her cohabitant. And she’s glad that she understand that she would not be able to live with this person her entire life.

“We split up, and it was over. Had we been married, we would have needed a divorce, to split up our things, and, well, if we had had children. . . that would have been just horrible. But it was simple this time around – we stopped liking each other, and split up. It would be good for everyone if society were to understand just how beneficial such relationships can be.”

They started to scream, that Giorgi’s wife had arrived, and I wasn’t able to deny it.

27 – year – old Irine is a journalist, and was born and grew up in a Georgian village. Later, her family moved to Tbilisi. Irine left her family house when she was 23 years old, and started living with her boyfriend.

“It didn’t work out between us. I started living on my own, and I had to make a living by myself. I can’t say that my parents didn’t try to interfere in my personal life. . . I returned to my parents’ house.”

Now Irine is dating again, and living with her boyfriend. They don’t call each other husband and wife.

“It was easy, it was comfortable for us. When we just started living together, we didn’t even think about marriage. . . but we did tell our parents. Our friends accepted our decision, but I don’t really talk anymore with my neighbors or relatives. After we started living together, we got to know each other even better, and our relationship moved on to a higher stage. I believe that living together is very important for serious relationships.”

According to Irine, the terminology relating to their relationship depends on the situation.

“We always underline that we are in love with one another. Once we went to visit the grandmother of my boyfriend in the village. 20 women met us there, and they started screaming, that Giorgi’s wife had arrive. It seemed impolite and incorrect to contradict them, so I remained quiet. You see, how we call each other depends on the situation.”

The desire to not stand out from the crowd and to create a good impression on other people is critical for a number of families of the Caucasus. Sometimes, however, it is only loud and sad divorces that are able to open up the eyes of families to the reality of the situation.

55 – year – old Shall Kasumova has a 26 – year – old daughter, Nazrin, who got married “in the right way”, that is — not knowing the boy before the marriage, with a loud wedding and in a white dress. But after 8 months of family life, Nazrin divorced her husband and told her mother that she could categorically not stand this man in her bed. After this experience, Nazrin has become a staunch supporter of young people being able to get to know each other before their wedding.

Her mother, Shalala, regrets that she did not think of the possible consequences of such a marriage before hand.

“How naive I was. I thought, ‘what will the neighbors say?’ And what was the result? She returned home as the unfortunate daughter, and gave birth to a child already without a husband. What if she were to have grown up and lived with a boyfriend? She’d at least have shared a bed, in a single apartment and she would have gotten to know someone well before deciding whether or not she wants to marry him. I wouldn’t even object now if that happened. We mothers should think carefully about this. First we worry about others will say, and then, after its all over, we don’t even know how to help our own children.”

But examples of couples who have lived together for years without registration can also serve to change people’s minds about cohabitation before marriage.

45 – year – old Nara Vardanyan lives with her 20 – year old daughter. She says that she’s willing to let her daughter live in such a situation, but only once she’s 25 years old. Nara is convinced that such pairs make for stronger and more successful couples.

“My brother went through the same thing. After five years of living together, they got married. They already have two children and they’re living happily together. One must know one’s partner before going forward with anything serious. And one’s intimate life also plays a big role in this decision. I’d say that 50 percent of divorces that happen these days result namely because of differences in the bedroom.”

She further added that she did everything in her life the way her parents wanted her to, and as a result, she is today raising her child by herself.

“I had a boyfriend. He was a sportsman, but my parents didn’t allow us to be together, because they said that he wouldn’t be able to support a family with sport alone. And I didn’t have the strength or courage to disobey them. But these things have changed – both the times and the generation. Maybe if I had continued living with him, I would have been happier these days”, says Nara.


This article was prepared in the framework of the project, “Taboo Topics of the Caucasus.”

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