Cohabitation: To live together or not?

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The divorce rate for couples who live together before marriage is no big secret. Study after study released during the last two decades, including one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have pronounced doomsday for couples who cohabitate prior to their big day.

A recent CDC report, which defines cohabitation as "a man and woman living together in a sexual relationship without being married," shows that "first marriages that were preceded by cohabitation are more likely to disrupt than those that were not preceded by cohabitation." Specifically, 40 percent of couples who cohabitate before tying the knot are likely to get a divorce after 10 years of marriage as opposed to 31 percent who don't. The number increases to 51 percent after 15 years, as opposed to 39 percent.

If those numbers don't scare you enough, a five-minute talk with Mike and Harriet McManus, co-founders of Marriage Savers and authors of Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers, might. According to the McManuses, cohabitation is "one of the stealth causes of marriage deterioration in America." Couples living together before marriage fear commitment, show less respect for one another and, perhaps worst of all, might be waiting for someone better to come along, they said.

So, given the numbers and the negative findings of the McManus' research, why do so many couples choose to move in together before they get married? What does the Church have to say and why? And how do pastors and Church officials work with cohabitating couples as they prepare them for the transition into married life?

For couples, the 'why?'

According to the CDC, close to half of all women live with a partner before marriage. The reasons, from trial marriage to convenience, are numerous and varied. Sitcoms to celebrities decree it to be the norm. In day-to-day life, according to the McManuses, couples "drift into cohabitation" just by spending every weekend together. Because of this, living together becomes a minor decision, something like "extended dating."

Some couples, though, especially those who are engaged, fit a slightly different profile. Often they move in together prior to their wedding because of practical reasons, such as logistics or finances. Michael and Barbara Smith (names have been changed), a Catholic couple living in the Arlington Diocese who married in 2006, lived together for a year following their engagement. The couple moved to a city where they didn't know anyone and where the cost of living was high. After much thought and discussion with their parents, they decided sharing a home made more sense financially.

"I would have married her on the spot," Michael said. "But the reality is that to plan a wedding takes time."

The decision was not one they took lightly.

"The statistics did scare us. We heard them from (our priest). We heard them at the marriage prep classes. We heard them from our families (and) friends," Michael said. "But all that aside, Barbara and I knew what we felt in our hearts - that we were going to get married and spend the rest of our lives together."

Another engaged couple, Karla and Josh Johnson (names have been changed), decided to move in together four months before their summer wedding because of logistics. With their work schedules, a move right after the wedding would have been difficult. It also helped ease a time-consuming commute for Josh.

Moving in together coincided with the beginning of their marriage preparation.

"It was a time when we're really reflecting on ourselves and who we are and what our quirks are as far as living together," Karla said. "I think it made our reflection time more intense."

So, even if you're already engaged, and it's only a matter of a few months, of logistics or of practicality, why does the Catholic Church, even then, stick so strongly to its no-cohabitation guns?

For the Church, the 'why?'

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Human love does not tolerate 'trial marriage.' It demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another."

In non-Catechism terms, "something different happens to a couple when you're married," said Thérèse Bermpohl, director of the Office for Family Life. When a couple decides to live together without getting married, "nothing will have changed from a spiritual standpoint."

When Bermpohl speaks to men and women preparing for marriage, she tries to help them understand that their marriage is sacred, and that it begins with the vows of commitment. She tries to hone in on the facts that: "God loves you (and) He's got a plan for you. He wants you to live marriage as it's intended and cohabitation just mimics it."

The graces from God that come with the sacrament of marriage are not present before the sacrament takes place, she said.

But, while Bermpohl's message is important, her reach is small-scale, usually at engagement weekends or over the phone. Instead, cohabitation is a subject usually left to the pastor to broach with a couple during their pre-Cana conversations.

Father David Sharland, campus minister of Marymount University in Arlington, said when mentoring cohabitating couples during marriage preparation, he tries to get to the bottom of where they're coming from and why they've made the decision to live together. Like the Smiths and the Johnsons, sometimes it's logistics, sometimes it's finances and sometimes "that's just what they want to be doing," he said.

But, echoing the Catechism and Bermpohl, Father Sharland said pretending to be married when you're not is not a good solution, regardless of the reasons. When preparing cohabitating couples for marriage, he tries to help them "look at this in long-term effects and what the costs are after their married life together."

Living together before marriage - or "playing house," Father Sharland called it - is akin to living a double life.

"You're pretending that you're committed, but you haven't made the ultimate commitment," he said. "You live with false expectations because you haven't said 'I do' yet."

The lack of commitment makes it an "open-ended relationship," he said. "They can walk out the door at any time. You can carry that into the married relationships."

When counseling cohabitating couples, Father Sharland encourages them to "take a break" from living together before marriage. He challenges them to separate for a month or more "so on the day they get married they have made a clear choice about how they are living" - one that is "different from the way they're interacting in the past."

He, like Bermpohl, tries to emphasize the "beauty of the marriage relationship."

"Part of it is reorienting their relationship from being about themselves to being about their relationship with God," he said, specifically "how their relationship as a married couple is about bringing their spouse to salvation."

While Father Sharland has never refused to witness a couple's wedding because of their cohabitation status, he will, however, suggest that cohabitating couples take extra time to prepare for their sacrament.

"I probably have more formation work to do with them to help them get prepared for marriage because they in some ways haven't had the formation," he said.

Father Jerome W. Fasano, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, said that while cohabitating couples preparing for marriage still have a "natural right to marry," at his parish the decision comes with a consequence that make couples think twice.

"Our policy is that cohabitating couples can only be married at a private ceremony with only their immediate family present," Father Fasano said. "To make a mockery of marriage would only complicate the situation."

Living together in a sexual relationship before marriage is a three-fold lie of unity, life and love, Father Fasano said. It says the couples' lives are one when they are not; it says they are ready for children when they are not; and it says they love one another, even while the couple is "destroying (one another's) relationship with God."

"That sounds more like hatred to me," he said. "The last thing in the world I would ever do is take somebody I love out of the grace of God."

Even two people living together in a chaste relationship, and who might not be guilty of impurity, may be guilty of scandal should others jump to the wrong conclusion, he said.

'Something actually changed'

For Stacy and Will Skelly, choosing not to move in together before their wedding was a decision that was based on their mutual Catholic faith and on what Stacy called the "societal right thing to do."

Nearly three years after their wedding, Stacy said she and her husband think the decision had a positive impact on their marriage.

"We got the thrill of truly starting our lives together after the ceremony and honeymoon," she said. "It felt very definitive and concrete. When we returned from Mexico, it wasn't just another day. It was the first day living together. It wasn't something that happened months before the wedding, but rather as a part of it."

The couple had a firm belief that marriage is "something that changes you - in a good way - and makes you a part of a new family unit," she said. "We very much felt moving in together would be a great catalyst for our new lives, making it feel 'different' than just another day following a big party and a long Mass."

Ultimately, Bermpohl said, helping couples understand why the Church teaches what it does is essential to curbing the tide of cohabitation.

"When you start to talk to people it resonates and it speaks to the natural law," she said, adding that it's important to catechize lovingly during what can be a sensitive conversation.

Father Sharland agreed - stressing that he doesn't want to drive people away from the Church, but rather help them understand that living together should be a consequence of marriage, which is a "gift from God."

"In the end we want to keep them in the Church where we can continue to minister to them and help them find the depth of their relationship with Christ," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can to help them to see the beauty of the truth of the Church."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010