Imagine this scenario: You’ve been in a serious relationship for several years and things are going well. You talk about a future, but not necessarily marriage. Your friends and family like this person. You get along fantastically. And people are now starting to ask, “When are you taking the next step?”
But by “next step,” they don’t mean a lifetime commitment and vow. They mean, “When are you going to move in together?” You hesitate to answer, “We’re not!” because so many people are doing it these days. In fact, 60% of those entering their first marriage in the United States are already cohabiting.
Cohabiting goes against several key beliefs we hold as Catholics: that marriage is forever; the Sacrament of Marriage grants couples graces that are indispensable; couples should be open to children and life—and anyhow, why would you want to live in mortal sin? So what are some arguments to explain that there is a lot more to marriage than figuring out “if you’re compatible” and having the his and her toothbrushes on the same bathroom shelf?
First, we have to debunk the idea that living together leads to longer, happier relationships; it doesn’t. Here are a few cohabitation statistics.
1. Cohabitation is becoming more and more common.
- Of those 18-24, “cohabitation is now more prevalent than living with a spouse: 9% live with an unmarried partner in 2018, compared to 7% who live with a spouse.”
- Looking next to 25-34 years of age, a full 15% choose to live together without marrying, an increase of 3% in the last decade.
- And according to the Pew Research Center, even more alarming, are over-50-year-olds: “Cohabiters ages 50 and older represented about a quarter (23%) of all cohabiting adults in 2016. Since 2007, the number of cohabiting adults ages 50 and older grew by 75%.
In short, despite the negative consequences of cohabitation (which we shall examine next), cohabitation is replacing marriage.
2. Cohabitation is linked to higher divorce rates.
Fewer are marrying, cohabiting is up, but statistical data shows repeatedly in study after study that those who decide to eventually “take the plunge” and marry after cohabiting are surprisingly more likely to divorce.
The Institute for Family Studies reports:
There remains an increased risk for divorce for those living together prior to marriage, and that prior studies suggesting the effect has gone away had a bias toward short versus longer-term effects. They find that living together before marriage is associated with lower odds of divorce in the first year of marriage, but increases the odds of divorce in all other years tested, and this finding holds across decades of data.” (emphasis added)
One study actually showed cohabitation doubled one’s chances of divorce.
2. Cohabitating couples are more likely to contracept.
Cohabitating couples most likely do not want to have children—at least not yet—so they contracept.
This affront to God also has far-reaching consequences on the woman’s body and on the relationship itself. Imagine what happens if the woman forgets to take the pill. Or maybe she doesn’t want to put chemicals in her body. Will the man be “responsible” and use a condom every time? What happens when an unintended pregnancy happens? Will they welcome this child, or will they abort because a baby is inconvenient? Do you want to be in a relationship with someone who would kill your child because he’s not part of “a plan?”
In a marriage, however, where the sexual act is both unitive and procreative—and where the couple does not contracept—people need not have this worry. They are open to life, or they space children naturally. According to the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic Conversation page, “Couples who practice Natural Family Planning have a divorce rate of about 5%, markedly lower than the 50% divorce rate of couples who utilize contraception.”
Why is this so? Because these couples see all life as a gift. Indeed, they see each other as a gift. And when you treat your spouse and children as gifts, you are much less likely to hurt them.
Other Problems with Cohabitation
1. It’s easier to walk away from cohabitation.
Just think about the difference in mentality of two people who are simply living together; instead of a lifetime commitment, cohabitation is meant as a trial, “to see how things work out.” Yet marriage is a vow to stay together during sickness and health and for better or for worse.
In the Catholic Church, this bond is unbreakable and endowed with sacramental graces for this lifetime journey together. But in cohabitation, when things become difficult—and they will—one or both will simply walk away, knowing they don’t have to split finances, divide property, or go through a lengthy court battle. There is, however, still emotional trauma of dealing with rejection since there is no “till death do us part.”
2. Cohabitation devalues you as a person.
Again as Catholics, we know marriage is not something we should take lightly.
Not only is marriage a vocation, but it is a sacrament—a sacred bond. This bond is not just between two people, but one that involves Christ as well. His involvement gives us the grace we need to help sustain the marriage. Cohabitating couples do not have this grace to sustain them because they have not taken a vow.
So, you have to ask yourself, Is the kind of person I want to be with someone who is just trying me out? Human beings aren’t used cars, leather jackets, or a new pair of ski boots. We shouldn’t try each other out by living together to see if we fit. When we do that, we devalue ourselves and the other person, and we place them in a category of things we can dispose of if we get tired of them or if things get difficult. Saying you want to just live with someone is like saying, “I like you, but you’re not worth me investing all of me in you right now.”
You deserve more than that. As children of God, we all do.
That is why the Catholic Church has such strong opposition to couples who live together outside of marriage and why the Church advocates chastity until marriage. When you give yourself fully to someone in the sexual act (as cohabitating couples do), you give him or her the gift of yourself. That gift is not something to be used, tried out, and discarded. It is to be cherished.
History and statistics show that women tend to be more emotionally vested in a sexual relationship, so a breakup can lead to immense heartache. We are not meant to bounce from one relationship to another, each time losing a part of ourselves. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Living together . . . involves varying degrees of physical and emotional interaction. Such a relationship is a false sign. It contradicts the meaning of a sexual relationship in marriage as the total gift of oneself in fidelity, exclusivity, and permanency.”
A sacramental marriage is the complete surrender and a gifting of yourself to your spouse. Everything you do for your spouse is for the good of his or her soul. You understand that it is now your job to help this person attain eternal life with Christ, and you work as a team to pave that road to heaven for each other. By its very nature, those just living together do not gift all of themselves, and very often one or both do not have the well-being of the other’s soul in mind. In fact, either one may hold back emotionally, knowing that there is no commitment and that a long-term future is uncertain.
When you know someone hasn’t given himself or herself to you totally, do you give all of yourself in return?
Remember that love is a decision; it is not always a feeling. A Catholic marriage preparation site articulates this reality: “When people mix up married love with romantic love, they wrongly feel that their marriage is in decline when the romance begins to fade.”
The romantic and passionate love a couple felt at the beginning of a marriage will ebb and flow as bills, jobs, and children take center stage. But that does not mean that the marriage is failing. In a true and loving sacramental marriage, you push through those days because God’s grace has given you a strong foundation, and you take your vow seriously. You have given yourself fully and wholly to this other person. Cohabitating couples miss out on this gift.
This self-sacrificial love is what marriage is. Self-sacrificial love is what cohabitation is not.