A Response to the Cohabitation Epidemic

The proliferation of research and literature about the sexual and marital habits of “Millennials” is staggering. Research indicates a casual or cavalier approach to sexual intimacy and of 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 increasingly fails to appreciate moral norms and the inherent value and beauty 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 in the United States. A thoughtful and creative effort to foster a culture of marriage is desperately needed.

Couples today cohabit for numerous reasons: more time together, financial concerns, 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 actively rebelling against their parents or ethical upbringing. All told, it is believed that between 50-70 percent of couples today are cohabiting before marriage. Catholics reflect national trends in spite of the Church’s consistent teaching that cohabitation and premature sexual relations are a “grave sin” and “contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2390).

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Sadly, couples who choose cohabitation choose a risky route that will lead to more heartbreak rather than fulfillment of the deepest longings of the heart. As Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker note in their recent 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 are married within three years. Nearly 20 percent of women will become pregnant in the first year of cohabiting. Only 26 percent of women who become pregnant while cohabiting will get married within the year. The “decrease in the probability of marriage among women who [become] pregnant in a cohabiting union” expose mother and child to a host of well-known negative outcomes. In short, cohabitation increases the likelihood of numerous negative outcomes for women while essentially granting to men all the “benefits” of marriage without men having any responsibilities. Regnerus and Uecker concur, noting 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 they are presented to the young. (It’s romantic, after all, to take risks and break trends.) Sharing doctrine as though it is a lifeless list of what you cannot do is also ineffective. 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 first 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 encounter and then 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 accompany and evangelize the young and couples who are cohabiting. “The pace of this accompaniment,” the synod bishops remind us, “must be steady and reassuring, reflecting a closeness and compassion which, at the same time, heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life.” Encountering and being friendly with a couple living in grave sin is not sufficient. Encountering young persons or couples who are already cohabiting where they are, and then accompanying them toward a greater maturity and toward a healthy and holy intimate relationships is vital.

Such a pastoral approach does not condone sexual sin, but rather steadily moves couples from sin to a free embrace of God’s beautiful plan for marriages. Evangelizers will be most effective in inviting conversion if couples 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 high 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.


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