by Theresa Notare
October 13, 2000
My delight in catching up with friends and relatives at a recent wedding stopped abruptly when I discovered that some were either already living with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or "seriously thinking about it." Most of my friends' parents who spoke with me noted "they did not approve" but that "they couldn't tell them what to do." No one mentioned how these decisions would hurt them or affect the family. Strangely, "right or wrong" was not discussed. Mind you, I was talking with a group of relatively "faithful" Catholics. I must say that my overwhelming thought was, "When did so many Catholics think that living together was "ok" or nothing to get very upset about?"
Popular wisdom regarding cohabitation takes many forms. It can be philosophical. "Cohabitation is a flexible alternative to marriage," or "it's like marriage without the paper work." Popular wisdom can be practical. "Couples should test their relationship by living together" and "life is so complicated that convenience and practicality have as high a value as commitment." And so they argue that living together for awhile can reduce the commute for one partner, improve their budget (Why pay two rents?), enable a couple to sell old or buy new furniture, etc. In the case of older couples, financial obstacles are cited--losing one's social security or a deceased spouse's benefits. But popular wisdom is misleading.
Current sociological research reveals that cohabitation is not what it is "cracked-up" to be. Studies from the University of Wisconsin (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995), The Journal of Marriage and the Family (Hall & Zhao, 1995), and Population Studies (Bracher, et al., 1993) state that cohabiting couples still divorce at a rate 50%--80% higher than couples who never did. The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, reports, "There is no evidence that those who decide to cohabit before marriage will have a stronger marriage than those who don't live together." The bishops' Committee on Marriage and the Family have summarized research in their document Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples (1999). Among their findings are a few critical facts: only 53% of first cohabiting unions result in marriage; cohabitors tend to hold individualism as a more important value than non-cohabitors; domestic violence is more common; cohabitors who marry are less effective at conflict resolution than those who do not cohabit--the list goes on. Popular wisdom may say that cohabitation benefits marriage, but it doesn't. The social sciences now confirm what has been revealed to us by God from the beginning--cohabitation is bad for people.
What does our faith reveal about marriage? Scripture and Tradition proclaim that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman unlike any other. The Old Testament prophets likened this bond to the covenant between God and Israel. Jesus taught that this relationship is permanent (Mark, 10:9). St. Paul compared the love between spouses to that of Christ and His Church (Ephesians). Leo XIII in the encyclical Arcanum (1880), spoke of the central place of the family in society, and how the destruction of marriage would result in the ruin of society. The Second Vatican Council called marriage a "lofty calling" where human life is reverenced and the love of the spouses is "caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ" (Gaudium et spes, #47 & 48). John Paul II has spoken and written extensively of the nuptial meaning of the body and the spouses' gift of themselves to each other in Christ. Thus, the singular love which spouses are meant to have is selfless, faithful, unconditional, exclusive yet generous, and enduring. Within this context the words "I" and "mine" are transformed to "us" and "ours." The desire to build a family and share their love with children is a natural extension of marital love. Indeed, spousal love is a sacred reality which mirrors God's love.
Couples need to understand that there is a fundamental difference between living together and marriage. Couples need to know the values that sustain marriage must be believed and lived before marriage. The moment that consent is exchanged through the vows, a new reality is born. Only in the fullness of married love can all the real elements of life and love be brought together. Anything less is not the real thing.
Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.