Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Cohabitation Before Marriage
The number of unmarried couples living together in
the United States has geometrically increased during the past four
decades. In 1960 there were 439,000; by 1984 the number had jumped
to 1,988,000; in 1998 the Census Bureau figure stood at 4,200,000.
Those statistics will hardly surprise anyone. Every
person in the United States today quite likely knows at least one
unmarried couple living together.
This rapid increase of cohabitation raises a series
of questions: What triggered the phenomenon? Are there negative
effects? How do clergy, educators and parents respond or relate
to the unmarried couple living together? In this Update we—ll
look at these and other commonly asked questions about cohabitation.
stimulated this dramatic shift toward living together among unmarried
The U.S. census indicates that there was a gigantic
surge in the number of unmarried cohabiting couples during the 60s
and 70s. Reviewing American society in those turbulent decades reveals
several— phenomena which directly or indirectly contributed to this
rapid increment: the —greening— of America with its antipathy towards
institutions of any type; the bitter debates over the Vietnam war;
the legalization of abortion; the common acceptance and practice
of contraceptives; the introduction of explicit sexual scenes in
films and television; a common toleration, even approbation of cohabitation;
the growing mobility in our culture; the delay of marriage due to
graduate studies and the training for professions (e.g., health-care
personnel and lawyers); the accelerating rate of divorces; the rapid
pace of life in the United States.
The following illustrations drawn from my experience
of— working with about 700 couples over the past dozen years demonstrate
the impact of those factors upon unmarried couples. These typical
examples are borne out by marriage researchers.
Cohabiting for convenience. With John working
the day shift in a factory, Mary the 3:00-11:00 hours at a hospital
and their two family homesteads almost a half hour drive apart,
this couple found making time to be together a difficult and frustrating
task. Renting an apartment and moving in together resolved that
Cohabiting for economy. Ann and Bill rented
separate apartments and hoped to begin marriage with a home of their
own. By sharing one apartment, they used the saved rental money
to purchase a house.
Cohabiting for discernment. Sam and Alice grew
up in a split family, both of their parents having divorced when
they were in elementary school. Each found that experience painful
and devastating. They do not want their children to suffer the same
trauma of divorce. This couple thought that living together before
marriage would help them evaluate their own relationship and better
prepare them for marital life.
A —commonsense— argument— rising up in the 60s and
70s along with sociological studies supported the decision of Alice
and Sam to cohabit before marriage.
Dr. Joyce Brothers summarized the widely spreading
—commonsense— argument in this way: —I wouldn—t dream of marrying
someone I hadn—t lived with. That—s like buying shoes you haven—t
Several surveys conducted in the 1970s and carried
over into the 1980s suggested that cohabitation effectively sifted
out incompatible couples, served as a training and adjustment period,
improved mate selection and enhanced the chances of avoiding divorce.
Moreover, other research at that time uncovered little evidence
that living-together couples had more difficulty remaining married
than those who had not lived together prior to marriage.
That argument and those studies made very awkward
and difficult the task of people who argued that cohabitation was
both morally wrong and an unwise way to prepare for marriage. As
we shall now see, later research strongly challenged those surveys
and even reversed their conclusions. In 1999 the Marriage and Family
Life Committee of the U.S. bishops— conference issued a well-footnoted
report summarizing much of this research. Those interested in exploring
this research more deeply are encouraged to start there (see box
negative effects to cohabiting before marriage?
We need to use caution in examining studies about
marriage because of the complexities involved. Nevertheless, sociological
research in the 1990s noted these negative trends about cohabitation:
Higher risk of divorce. Cohabitors who do marry
are more at risk for subsequent divorce than those who did not cohabit
before marriage. In the United States the risk of divorce is 50
percent higher for cohabitors than for non-cohabitors. The divorce
rate is even higher with previously married cohabitors and serial
cohabitors (those who have had several cohabiting experiences).
There are some indications that the divorce rate is higher for couples
who live together for a longer period of time, especially over three
Less satisfactory adiustments in marriage.
In a study cited by the bishops— committee, cohabitors generally
report lower satisfaction with marriage after they marry than do
non-cohabitors. There are indications that some living-together
couples have more problematic, lower-quality relationships with
more individual and couple problems than non-cohabitors.
Harmful effect upon children. Research in both
England and the United States details the negative impact upon children,
including a much higher incidence of child abuse (10 to 33 times
more likely with unmarried couples than with married couples).
These dry but ominous sociological statements take
on added significance when exploring some actual experiences of
cohabiting couples. We should keep in mind research about the tenuous
nature of a cohabiting relationship. That fragility of the connection
underlies some of the negative experiences described below.
Cohabiting couples are more likely to:
Duck tough issues. They know or intuit that
at least a high percentage of cohabiting couples split prior to
marriage. Conscious of this fact, they may avoid discussing or dealing
with problematic areas lest those discussions weaken or break their
already tenuous connection. One scholar cited by the bishops studied
a hundred couples who had lived together, married, and within five
years divorced. The majority had discussed only in the most general
terms and infrequently, prior to the wedding, sensitive issues like
finances, careers, leisure activities and children.
Repress anger and avoid criticism of each other—s
annoying behavior. The fragile nature of the cohabiting relationship
can make a couple extremely cautious and reluctant to complain about
the other—s insensitive or irritating actions.
Repressing anger in this fashion can only lead to
disaster. Eventually it surfaces, frequently in explosive eruptions
hurtful to both parties.
Moreover, the couple may surprisingly and perhaps
desperately begin to view marriage as the miracle solution to their
On the contrary, countless contemporary couples would
testify today that getting married does not produce a miraculous
change. If anything, it surfaces negative habits which have been
repressed during the courtship and which may gradually emerge with
greater intensity as the ordinariness of marital life takes over.
Fail to develop realistic and satisfactory financial
habits. Prior to the wedding couples treasure independence and
economic equality. Solid marriages require, instead, interdependence
and mutual exchange of resources.
The free-spending habits of one partner during cohabitation
may be perfectly acceptable, even pleasing to the other. Once married,
that may not be the case. Saving for a house, anticipating babies
and providing for their children—s future college education now
become more pressing issues. For the budget-conscious spouse, use
of precious dollars by the other for unnecessary items or extravagant
ventures will surely cause conflict.
Suffer strained relationships with parents, close
family members and treasured friends. Many of us, at least to
some extent, are people pleasers. To have people we care about,
particularly our fathers and mothers, critical of our actions causes
us pain. That in turn can impact the interaction between the cohabiting
man and woman.
In an effort to avoid troublesome confrontation, dishonesty,
untruthfulness and inauthenticity may creep into relationships with
others, including and above all, parents. This, of course, applies
mainly to those who are away from home and at some distance because
of college or work situations. Rather than disappoint parents, incur
criticism or experience rejection, the cohabiting person may fudge,
conceal or even lie about the cohabitation arrangement.
Struggle with an undercurrent of guilt by this
violation of one's conscience or religious upbringing. When
persons have been raised in the Catholic Church—including Baptism,
Penance, Communion and Confirmation—and for all their adolescent
life have been taught its teachings, then they rarely are able simply
and radically to discard the Church or discount those instructions.
Contrary to the situation of the 70s, contemporary
sociological research and the actual experiences of couples living
together make it easier today to speak about the moral wrongness
of cohabitation and its questionable value as a way of preparing
clergy, educators and parents respond or relate to the unmarried
couple living together?
Clergy. Prior to the explosion of cohabitation
in the 60s and 70s, most priests tended to say little about this
situation to an unmarried couple living together, but now seeking
to marry in the Church. The clergy—s thinking went like this: —They
are trying to correct their situation and be reconciled with God,
so I will gently and kindly help them along that path.—
Father Thomas Kramer of Bismarck, North Dakota, directly
confronted this issue in 1984 with a letter to engaged couples.
In his communication, Father Kramer discussed the negative aspects
of cohabiting from a theological, moral and practical point of view.
In addition, he urged couples to separate or, if not, to celebrate
their marriage in a quiet ceremony with only two witnesses and the
immediate family present. A syndicated religious news service reprinted
his letter and thus gave it nationwide attention.
Around the same time, Bishop George Speltz of St.
Cloud, Minnesota, issued a —Pastoral Letter on Cohabitation— making
the same arguments and prescribing the same resolution of the matter:
Separate or, if not, celebrate the marriage with a small, quiet
While there was good support for the statements and
policy of Bishop Speltz, few other dioceses adopted or developed
similar documents or regulations. The reasons for their hesitation
to implement identical rules were many, such as: uneasiness about
intruding upon the couple—s natural right to marriage, concern over
lack of honesty and true communication between clergy and couples,
fear of the couple—s and the family—s permanent alienation from
Instead, more and more dioceses envisioned the exchange
between couple and clergy as a teachable and touchable moment. Recognizing
that cohabitation is not an official impediment to marriage, those
leaders encouraged a dialogue between the couple hoping to marry
and the priest or deacon arranging the nuptial service. To facilitate
that process, they created these penetrating but appropriate questions
for the couple—s self-examination and their subsequent discussion
with the priest:
Why did you choose to live together (e.g., fear
of permanent commitment, testing the relationship, concern about
future divorce, convenience, need for companionship, financial reasons,
escape from home)?
What have you learned from this experience of living together?
Can you identify the driving force or forces behind your decision
to marry at this time?
Was there a previous reluctance or hesitation to marry? If
so, why? Are you now at a new point of personal development? Have
you completely resolved those previous issues?
What is it that prompts you to marry in the Catholic Church
at this time? Or, to place it in another context, why have you
approached a Catholic priest or deacon now?
How do you envision marriage as a sacrament or sacred union?
Do you consider openness to life, growth in faith and deepening
of love as being an intimate part of your marriage?
More recently, Bishop John D—Arcy of Fort Wayne, Indiana,
issued a letter to engaged couples in August, 2001, which very directly
stated: —I urge all engaged couples who are living together to separate
and those who are engaging in sexual relations to stop.— He also
suggested to priests that in questions of doubt they might delay
the wedding and follow the practice of a small wedding as proposed
by Father Kramer and Bishop Speltz.
While clergy clearly approach the cohabiting challenge
in different ways, there seems to be rather universal agreement
among them that not to discuss the situation at all with the unmarried
couple living together is to give tacit approval to their cohabitation.
Educators. In a certain sense, it is already
too late to address the issue when an engaged but living-together
couple contact the Church for marriage. They are already in that
arrangement and within a relatively short period of time will rectify
the situation by their nuptial vows.
What seems more critical is a comprehensive effort
to educate our young people about the negative aspects of cohabitation.
Religion classes on the elementary, secondary and college level
as well as occasional homilies at Sunday Masses could provide clear
teaching. These instructions would also gradually create a climate
in which our youth develop an attitude and the conviction that living
together before marriage is morally wrong and an unwise preparation
for married life. Then, when the later attractive suggestion or
possibility of living together before marriage occurs, they would
be more likely, for various reasons, to decline or reject that course
Parents. The cohabiting situation can burden
parents perhaps more than anyone else. They may love their children,
disagree with the living-together situation and yet wonder what
they should say and do. Here are some suggestions:
Begin early. As the first and prime teachers
of the faith, parents should instruct the children on this matter
starting at an early age as we have mentioned above.
Know the facts. My book Should We Marry?
(Ave Maria Press) contains an abundance of facts and stories which
should prove helpful for parents with those instructions to their
Disclose convictions and feelings. Children
need to know that cohabitation will cause pain, sadness or hurt
to their parents. They may still proceed as planned, but at least
they will understand their parents— convictions and how their own
actions can prompt these negative feelings within Dad, Mom or both.
Distinguish home and away. Most parents I have
talked with about cohabitation take this kind of approach to their
children: —While you are here at home we can insist on certain rules
and procedures. But now that you are away from home at college or
working in another city, we are not able to do that. You are on
your own. We may not like or agree with your decision, but we must
live with that. We also may express our displeasure and disagreement
in the way we visit or do not visit your apartment or house. However,
when you are here for vacation or a holiday, we will not permit
you to sleep together in our house.—
Don't blame yourselves. The weakness of human
nature and the quicksand pull of contemporary culture are formidable
opponents. If parents have done their best by good example and wise
guidance, then such dads and moms need to let go of debilitating
guilt. After all, they can give their children only roots and wings;
they merely point the way, teach them to fly and release them to
the world. They surely may feel sad and wounded about the cohabitation.
But it would be a mistake for them also to assume the burden of
Love them always. As we all know, growing up
is an uneven and ongoing process which never really ends. On that
journey, especially in younger years, we often make poor choices,
fail, commit sins. During those early false starts and bad decisions
and more so afterwards, we hope, sometimes rather desperately, that
our parents— love for us continues and that we always can find in
their caring embrace a safe and secure haven.
The Mass TodayChanges in the General Instruction (by Lawrence Mick)