Considering cohabitation

The proliferation of literature about the sexual and marital habits of "millennials" is staggering. Research indicates a casual approach to sexual intimacy and marriage. Marriage is increasingly postponed or rejected in favor of transitional "trial marriages" or temporary live-in situations glamorized today in popular media as "the next step" in intimate relationships.

The intimate relationship choices of young adults today expose a culture that fails to appreciate moral norms and the inherent value of marriage. The rapid acceptance of cohabitation and the dissolution of a culture of marriage in the wake of the sexual revolution pose a significant challenge to the Catholic Church. A concerted effort to foster a culture of marriage is desperately needed.

Couples today cohabit for numerous reasons: more time together, finances and fear of the commitment of marriage or fear of divorce. Others slip into it out of convenience, some want to test their compatibility, while still others are rebelling against their parents or ethical upbringing. As many as 50-70 percent of couples today are cohabiting before marriage.

Sadly, couples who cohabit choose a risky route that leads to more heartbreak rather than fulfillment of their deepest longings. As Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker concluded in their book, Premarital Sex in America, "Cohabitation is still about uncertainty and risk management for both men and women. It's holding back to see how things go ... cohabitation is inherently unstable."

The CDC has noted that only 40 percent of first-time cohabiters get married within three years. Nearly 20 percent of women will get pregnant in the first year of cohabiting. Only 26 percent of women who become pregnant while cohabiting will get married within the year. This instability exposes mother and child to a host of well-known negative outcomes while men enjoy all the benefits of marriage without responsibilities. Regnerus and Uecker note that "Cohabitation is a win-win situation for men: more stable access to sex, without the expectations or commitments of marital responsibilities."

But statistics are usually unconvincing when presented to the young. Although the final relatio of the extraordinary synod on the family did not directly address cohabitation, the bishops suggest an approach that relies more upon honey and less upon vinegar. They write, "The primacy of grace needs to be highlighted and, consequently, the possibilities which the Spirit provides in the sacrament. It is a question of allowing people to experience the Gospel of the family is a joy which 'fills hearts and lives,' because in Christ we are 'set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.'" As a starting point, a cohabiting couple might be asked, "As a gift to your loved one, would you like to avail yourself of every good means that will give you grace and help you grow together in joy and freedom?" Encountering them at this natural inclination of the human mind and heart may open them to permanence in love between one man and one woman - marriage.

We must seize opportunities to move couples whose relationships do not embrace the fullness of the teaching on marriage toward a full embrace of the beautiful, true and freeing message of God's plan for their relationship. Clergy working with engaged couples, parents whose children cohabit and faithful peers need to evangelize the young and couples who are cohabiting. This will be most effective if they are, in the words of Pope Francis, "enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient and anxious but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ."

The rates of cohabitation, the reality of sin and the hazards for couples who have, at the outset of their relationship, chosen this way of living, compels Catholics to accompany couples on a steady journey toward greater appreciation of the sweetness of married life and the grace that will set them free to fulfill the deepest hopes for their intimate relationships.

Nichols is president of The John Paul II Foundation for Life and Family.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015