Whether we be a man or a woman, God has a plan for each of our lives. For many, that plan includes the joining of man and woman in the sacramental bond of marriage. This bond is a sacred covenant of love involving a man, a woman and God. Therefore, each person entering into that special covenant of marriage needs adequate preparation to be certain that one is ready to marry. Moreover, all entering marriage must be as certain as possible that their spouse is the person to whom they can make a lifetime commitment of love.
Today many couples (those who are engaged and those who are not) prepare for their possible married life together by cohabiting, or "living together," before marriage. However, a view that is commonly held is that couples who live together before marriage can more adequately determine if their lifetime commitment to one another as husband and wife is possible. Two generations ago living together before marriage was viewed as scandalous by our society. Young people were strongly discouraged from cohabiting. As a society, that view has been greatly challenged today. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of couples seeking marriage in the United States today are living together. Many people see cohabiting not only as permissible, but even as necessary to attempt to diminish the possibility of divorce or marital unhappiness later in the life.
The church does not believe that cohabitation before marriage is a moral or acceptable preparation for this sacred bond. Rather, the church sees cohabitation as a threat to the marital happiness that engaged couples so desperately seek. Cohabitation as an actual threat to marital happiness has furthermore been borne out in recent research studies done by today's social sciences, as will be quoted in the following section. This pastoral letter is an attempt to encourage couples contemplating marriage not to live together before their wedding day. Moreover, this pastoral letter is a challenge to all Catholics to support engaged couples as they prepare for a lasting marriage.
Why Couples Cohabit*
(*For our purposes, we will accept the general definition which defines cohabitation as a situation where "a couple has been living together for at least four nights a week for an extended period of time, giving the appearance, at least externally, that they have formed a quasimarriage relationship."
There are many and varied reasons why a couple might decide to live together before they are married. It is helpful for those who are preparing couples for marriage in the church to listen and attempt to understand the motives behind such a decision. Pope John Paul II states very pastorally in his apostolic exhortation on the role of the Christian family in the modern world, "The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case."
It is also important for the couple to know and to be able to explain the reasons why they have made the decision to live together before marriage. Even today, in a permissive society which considers itself free from many of the so-called constraints of traditional moral norms, the decision of a man and a woman to live together before they are married should never be taken lightly. Recent studies have identified some of the major reasons why couples decide to cohabit. This is by no means an exhaustive list of reasons, and couples may discover that their decision is a combination of several of these reasons offered below:
1. Testing Period
"Let's just try and see how it works out." Commonly, this reason is referred to as a trial marriage. The rationale here is that by living together a couple may discover whether or not they are compatible. This way the individuals believe that they can avoid the mistake of marrying someone with whom they are fundamentally mismatched. Between 1965 and 1985, there was a 400 percent increase in the number of couples cohabiting in the United States.
At the same time period, there was a significant increase in the number of divorces. Just in one decade, between 1980-1990, the U.S. Census Bureau reported an 80 percent increase of couples living together before marriage. A significant and growing body of research, however, points to the fact that the prospect of divorce dramatically increases for those who cohabit. With cohabiting couples, even in the most committed relationships, both the man and the woman know in the back of their minds that if things really become difficult, they can always go their separate ways without the trauma of a legal nightmare.
2. Financial Benefits
"We can save more money by moving in together." The cost of living is less when two people are sharing the bills. Economically, it would seem to make good sense. Many of the 2.9 million couples living together before marriage in the United States offer this as one major reason for living together. Considering the fact that 1 million of those 2.9 million couples have children under 15 years of age, there is an added financial stress to provide not only for the couple but also for the children born of previous relationships. Choosing to live together solely for economic reasons reveals a dangerously overpragmatic and sometimes selfish view of marriage.
When a couple lives together, earned income is often easily viewed as "his" or "hers." After the marriage, however, the income and expenses are shared by both parties. This can often become a source of frustration and disagreement among the spouses. Marital love and happiness are built upon a much deeper and stronger base than upon future financial security.
"We've grown so close to each other. Let's live together." This is often a slow, progressive process. The movement from dating to preparing meals together, to sleeping together, to staying over more often to eventual cohabitation is more of a developmental process rather than a conscious decision. Unfortunately, in situations such as this, couples have reflected upon the reasons for their decision to live together, and they have very often developed a strong sexual dependency.
Cohabitation is an almost natural result of violating chastity before marriage. It can be stated clearly at this point that there is a difference between premarital sexual intercourse (i.e. fornication) and living together without the benefit of marriage (i.e. cohabitation). In both situations are the possibility of grave scandal and grave sin.
4. Sexual Need
"Why do we have to wait to physically express our love?" In a relationship where the bond of physical intimacy becomes so strong, the couple finds it next to impossible to live apart. Given the addictive power of sex, this kind of relationship can also become co-dependent on a more physical level and can confuse sex for love. Instead of the sexual act being a life-giving act of mutual love, it can often become a life-draining and very selfish abuse of another person. In a relationship which has a strong dependency on sexual intimacy it can be more difficult for the couple who lives together to resolve other problem areas of their lives. A couple can begin to use sex as a way to convince themselves that the relationship is going fine.
When sexual intimacy becomes the predominant way of communicating, it stifles a couple's discovery of the attitudes, hopes and desires of the other person. A couple must have the freedom and emotional strength to separate the sexual dimension of their attraction for each other and their true love for one another. That love contains the element of trust. When one or both persons cannot delay their urge for sexual gratification before the marriage, what guarantee exists that individuals can trust one another in the fidelity of their marital vows after marriage?
"I love you so much, that I cannot live without you." Oftentimes the need for companionship and the fear of loneliness are so strong that either one or both parties decide they cannot wait for marriage because they feel they need to be with each other all of the time. This kind of relationship often becomes co-dependent on an emotional and psychological level. A 1994 study published in Christian Society Today7 discovered that couples who do live together before marriage have a 50 percent greater chance of divorce than those couples who did not cohabit before marriage. The insecurity of not being able to live without one another before the marriage manifests itself after the marriage in a lack of trust between the two parties which is essential for a strong marital relationship.
6. Fear of Commitment
"I'm just afraid of losing you." A couple may live together because they fear a permanent commitment. By living together, they know if they do split, it is not the same as a divorce. They want to keep their options open, and they want to keep from getting hurt too badly. The result of this thinking is reflected in the fact that 40 percent of couples who live together before marriage break up before marriage. Other studies indicate 60 - 70 percent of cohabiting couples who break up never marry the person with whom they lived. In addition, couples who have married persons with whom they previously lived are more likely to live with another person prior to a subsequent marriage. Thus, cohabitation upon cohabitation increases the likelihood of divorce upon divorce.
"Living with you will make me happier than I am now." Moving in with someone may allow the person to escape another difficult living arrangement (e.g., parents, roommates, friends). Some wish to prove their independence by moving in with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Instead of focusing upon the two persons contemplating marriage, this relationship all too often becomes simply an escape from other problematic relationships.
8. Playing House
"Hey! This is going to be fun!" In younger and less mature couples, there is a naive romanticism about setting up a home. This idea can become so strong that waiting for marriage seems impossible. For example, college students often live together with this mentality. The average length of such living arrangements among college students is seven months. Often this mentality returns again later as the person more seriously seeks a potential marriage partner. But any married couple can attest that marriage is more difficult than simply playing house.
9. No Fear of Pregnancy
"We need to get to know one another first. Later we'll start having kids." In the past, a large deterrent to both premarital sex and cohabitation was the fear of pregnancy. With the availability and the social acceptability of artificial contraception, the possibility of an unexpected pregnancy is no longer a strong deterrent. As long as the couple is having "protected sex," then the prospect of conceiving a child out of wedlock (which even today in our liberated society is still frowned upon) becomes less of a concern.
Because artificial contraception eliminates the openness to the possibility of new life resulting from sexual intercourse, the church has consistently taught that its use is seriously sinful. It is easy to see how the social acceptability and availability of artificial contraception in the '60s and '70s, giving a couple the ability to minimize the fear of pregnancy, has coincided with the rise and acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation in society. It is important, as we said above, that everyone involved in the preparation process, especially the couples themselves, understand why the decision by the couple to cohabit was made.
Part 2 will focus on... The Better Way
Having looked at several reasons why couples choose to live together before marriage, next time we will address the reasons why the church teaches that there is "a better way" to prepare for the sacrament of marriage.