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Living Together— Why Wait for Marriage (or Marry at All)?
By: Jim Healy, Ph.D.
My friends Jack and Peggy were married in 1960. They say, “We didn’t know anybody who was living together, and we don’t think our friends knew anybody, either.” Few could make that claim today. There are now 6.4 million cohabiting opposite-sex couples in America today, and 60 to 70 percent of those who marry this year will have lived together first. The same percentage applies to Catholic couples.
As a Church and as a society, how do we make sense of this reality? More personally, how do we respond if our children, our friends or our parents make the choice to cohabitate?
When we listen to cohabiting couples themselves, they offer a wide variety of reasons for living together. These range from just wanting to be together more, sexual accessibility, economic necessity, wanting to “take the next step” in commitment, testing for compatibility and trying to reduce the possibility of divorce. At the personal level, it’s important not to assume that we know why a couple is living together until we ask them.
Implicit in the reasons given by the more serious couples are questions around commitment. In a country where the divorce rate for first marriages still hovers between 40 and 50 percent, cohabitation seems like a perfect way to see, in advance, if a particular relationship is “marriage-worthy.” The social sciences, though, clearly tell us that cohabitation actually has the opposite effect.
After many years of research, it still appears that, as a group, couples who live together before marriage divorce at significantly higher rates than couples who don’t. The exact percentage depends on a variety of variables. The longer a couple lives together, the higher the divorce rate of the subsequent marriage. The more cohabiting partners in a person’s life, the higher the divorce rate if a marriage takes place. If the partners are already publicly engaged before they move in together, there is no increase in the divorce rate. But if they move in together as a way of discerning their decision to marry, their chance of divorce climbs. And if they move in together with no discussion of marriage but end up marrying anyway (this is quite common), the divorce rate skyrockets.
Why is this so? Because cohabiting couples blend their lives in such a way that it’s difficult to leave, even if it’s reasonably clear that one should. When, as often happens, an ultimatum is offered (e.g., “Either we get married or somebody needs to move out”), the path of least resistance is to marry. Moving in with somebody you’re not sure you want to marry makes it more likely, not less, that you’ll marry the person against your better judgment.
If the research findings aren’t convincing enough, for Christians and especially for Catholics, the theological arguments could be even more compelling. We Catholics believe that marriage is a sacrament—a primary way of showing God’s faithful, creative love to the world. We believe that, when we make love, we are offering each other not just an action or a moment, but our entire lives, in imitation of the way Jesus offered his life for us.
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Power and grace come into our lives when the actions of our bodies are lined up with the commitments we’ve made with our lives. The Catholic Church says cohabitation is wrong, not because it increases human happiness, but because it limits it.
So how do we treat the cohabiting couples who come to the Church asking for marriage? In Pope John Paul II’s words regarding all cohabiting couples, we are to “make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation” (Familiaris Consortio, #81).
In other words, we welcome them. We help them assess their readiness for marriage. We offer them the richness of our teaching on sexuality and marriage, and we challenge them with it—as we do with all the couples who prepare for marriage. We allow them to marry in the Church, inviting them into ongoing evangelization within our parishes and our movements.
We can also look at our own assumptions. Perhaps two percent of the cohabiting couples in America will approach the Catholic Church this year to get married. If to us they look highly irregular in their behaviors and relation to the Church, it may be because we’re comparing them to previous generations. Compared to their cohabiting peers, however, they are the traditionalists. In stepping forth to “regularize their situation,” not only are they wishing to marry, but they are also seeking marriage in the Catholic Church.
Remember, however, that most marriage preparation takes place before a person ever meets the one he or she is going to marry. We need to do a better job, particularly during the high school, college and young-adult years, of getting the word out regarding the negative consequences of cohabitation. Much more importantly, we need to offer them the alternative of Christian marriage in as compelling a way as possible.
What about parents, who are torn regarding how to react when their adult children are considering or choosing cohabitation? Many parents who have successfully navigated this challenge offer this advice: Be clear about your own beliefs and why you hold them, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
Also, though, stay in good emotional contact with your children. You can tell them what you believe, without telling them what you believe every time you see them. Your beliefs may govern your actions, but they can never limit your love. Your children are adults with the responsibility of making their own moral decisions. Your willingness to try to understand their points of view will win you the right to share your own perspective.
It’s not easy to balance clarity with patient empathy, but it is what God continuously offers us. Our children—and our world—deserve no less from us.
Permission to Publish received for this article, “Living Together” by James Healy, Ph.D., from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 3-15-2010.
By: Frank Frost
The hip title of He’s Just Not That Into You may suggest a cute, superficial romantic story, and in the beginning, that reaction seems justified. But by the end of the movie, you realize that you’ve been invited to think about some substantial questions about relationships between men and women. This ensemble piece tells four interrelated stories involving five men and four women in their search for meaningful relationships.
■ What is the attitude toward cohabitation among your family, co-workers and friends?
■ What more might the Church do to challenge and encourage couples to buck the cultural trend toward cohabitation outside of marriage?
■ What will you do to hold up Christian marriage in as positive and compelling a way as possible?
One couple has been living together for seven years without the prospect of marriage. When Beth (Jennifer Aniston) brings up marriage, Neil (Ben Affleck) replies that he doesn’t believe in marriage. “I love you. I’m committed to you. We have a great life,” he says. “Why can’t we just be happy?” But the moment has come for Beth, triggered in part by her sister’s pending wedding. The question she’s been suppressing for five years will no longer stay submerged: “You know who I am. You either want to marry me or you don’t.” Faced with an ultimatum, Neil chooses to move out.
The foil to this relationship is a married couple who is struggling. Ben (Bradley Cooper) begins an affair with Anna (Scarlett Johansson), who questions why he’s married. His response: His girlfriend gave him an ultimatum. Now he thinks getting married was a mistake. Several other relationships, and plenty of talking about them, serve to shed light not only on those romances, but on all the others interwoven in the movie.
Will any of these couples find the permanent love they’re seeking? On its way to some satisfying entertainment and unexpected twists, He’s Just Not That Into You provides (within the limitations of its genre) plenty to think about.
Next time you watch He’s Just Not That Into You, ASK YOURSELF:
By: Judy Ball
Three times a year, for eight weeks at a stretch, Linda and Butch Moses enter a room at Holy Family of Nazareth Parish in Irving, Texas, and see a beautiful sight: 10 to 12 happy couples, who are very much in love. Typically, the men and women are engaged to be married, though a handful may still be discerning marriage. More often than not, they’re young, but a few may be returning to the sacrament following a marriage that ended with the death of a spouse or a Church declaration of nullity (annulment).
■ Do I believe the commitment between Beth and Neil is enough to forgo marriage?
■ What do I think of Beth’s conclusion that Neil’s commitment to her without marriage is better than the “real” marriages of other men she has observed?
■ Does this movie leave me with any insights into my own attitude toward cohabitation?
All of the couples have come to the parish because they want the Catholic Church to help them prepare for a life of married love and to bless their sacred union. At any time, at least half of the couples with whom Linda and Butch work are already living together. Cohabitation may well be here to stay—not just for couples in general, but for Catholic couples as well. But this is not a reality that disturbs Linda, 63, and Butch, 64, as much as it motivates them.
Married 42 years themselves, these parents of three adult children and grandparents of three see their ministry as an opportunity to let couples know just how much the Church welcomes them and wants to help them prepare for a long, rich life of married love. Together, Linda and Butch serve as co-directors of adult and family ministry at their parish. (Linda is also on the parish staff as director of faith formation and family ministry while Butch is employed as a remodeling contractor.) Assisting them are 20 sponsor couples.
Whether a couple is living together or not, Linda tells Every Day Catholic by telephone, “Something is drawing them here, and we’re glad for that.” Adds Butch: “We don’t segregate those couples who are cohabitating or treat them differently. The more we can be honest with each other, the more we can grow. We don’t agree with their decision [to live together], but we set aside judgment.”
Some engaged couples already living together may begin marriage preparation with a certain defensiveness or misunderstanding about Church teaching. This includes a sense that, says Linda, Church rules involve too much “red tape” and too many “hoops to jump through.” In fact, says Butch, what the Church wants is “the best relationship a couple can have.”
Over the past 32 years of their ministry, a handful of the couples with whom they’ve worked have “undecided” to live together after hearing the Moseses speak of the negatives of cohabitation, including statistics that point to the failure of the marriages that follow. “The vast majority of couples appreciates our point of view and wants to hear the information we present. They take it to heart,” says Butch, and many become active parishioners.
For Linda and Butch, success is not having cohabiting couples decide, en masse, to stop living together. It’s saying to all couples about to be married: Congratulations! We are here for you! The Church loves you!
By: Jeanne Hunt
Julie and Kevin have lived together for three years. It was so easy to share living expenses, and they planned to marry after college anyway. The wedding is on the horizon, and they visited Father Don for the first time to begin their preparation. Without blinking an eye, Father told them he would not pursue their marriage preparation as long as they lived together. They were shocked: Who does this priest think he is?! Everyone lives together now. That idea of virginity is absolutely passé. Living together is a wonderful way to know if this is really the right marriage partner. If we’re compatible before marriage, we’re sure to be compatible after the big day.
This scenario is common among engaged couples coming to the Church to be married. Many simply lie about their circumstances to avoid possible confrontation. But Father Don has good reason for his strict guidelines. Father Joseph Champlin makes the following points in the Catholic Update “Cohabitation Before Marriage”: Cohabitators have a 50 percent higher risk of divorce than those who wait. The relationship of cohabiting couples is reported to be less satisfying and lacks depth. Children born of these relationships have a higher incidence of parental abuse. Couples who cohabitate have more difficulty discussing tough issues and are inclined to repress anger and avoid criticism of the partner’s annoying behaviors.
The best opinions in the spiritual arena believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a wonderful grace in abstinence before marriage. When we wait for the great blessing of marriage, the gift of the other is too precious not to care for and nurture. When a couple already lives together before marriage, many pastors recommend a temporary separation and sexual abstinence until marriage (not to mention a good confession). Our God is a lover of second chances, and this situation is a perfect occasion for God’s mercy.
Julie and Kevin go home that night with their heads filled with thoughts of their future. What really stayed in their minds was Father Don’s comment: “If you really love each other, you would do anything to ensure a lifetime of love.” They know in their hearts that he is right. They just don’t want to do the right thing when the wrong thing is so easy. Yet Julie thinks, I’ll bet Mom and Dad would let me move back into my old room for a few months.
By: Jeanne Hunt
(for praying with your beloved)
Preparation: Place a lit candle, a bottle of wine, two wine glasses and an open Bible on a prayer table.
Taking each other’s hands, the couple prays:
In your mercy, God, give us a new beginning. Allow us to take a step into your love as we take a temporary step away from each other. Calm our fears, mend our disappointments, help us control our passions and give us a future full of hope.
Read this together three times:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
After the reading, hold each other quietly without speaking. Then, light the candle, pour the wine and say to the other:
My beloved, this is new wine in a new wineskin. The old way is gone now. In this cup is the sign of my faithfulness and my love.
Give your cup to your partner to drink. After you have traded cups, silently drink the wine as you look at the Christ candle, a sign of Jesus’ presence with you.
End the quiet time by praying:
May God protect and keep us during these days of chaste separation. May we wait with hopeful anticipation of the day when we can be married and share our lives forever. Amen.