Cohabitation: Response Over Reaction

by Barbara Markey


This article by Barbara Markey advises priests preparing couples for the Sacrament of Matrimony how to respond when faced with the issue of cohabitation.

Larger Work

The Priest



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., November 2000

Good pastoral leadership, according to Rabbi Edwin Friedman, is characterized by "clear vision with a non-anxious presence."1 The pervasive and growing phenomenon of cohabitation calls for such leadership, but it also presents a conundrum for many priests when they face it head-on in the arena of preparing cohabiting couples for marriage.

Should they focus on the cohabitation or on the marriage? Is their first obligation to deal with the objective moral lapse of the cohabitation or to concentrate on the couple's approach to the sacramental ideal of marriage? Is it better to ignore the cohabitation experience during the marriage preparation, or is it best to examine the effects of the cohabitation experience and integrate it into the marriage preparation? Are they rewarding or encouraging cohabitation if there is no negative consequence imposed when a couple does not choose to separate before marriage?

Experiencing confusion rather than "clear vision," clergy can bring an "anxious presence" of conflicting values and philosophies to their dealings with cohabiting couples who want to marry in the Church. It is easy for priests to react rather than respond to the phenomenon of cohabitation.

That is unfortunate. A large body of data suggests that good pastoral leadership is especially important when preparing cohabiting couples for marriage. They are the largest "at risk" group entering marriage today:

  • By 1997, the total number of unmarried couples in America topped 4 million, up from less than half a million in 1960.2

  • More than 50 percent of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation, compared to virtually none earlier in the century. The rate is even higher for second marriages.3 Depending on the setting, cohabiting couples typically constitute between 30 percent and 80 percent of couples presenting themselves to Catholic parishes for marriage preparation.

  • Contrary to earlier popular expectations, cohabitation does not increase a couple's chances for a successful marriage. Cohabiting couples who marry have a divorce rate that is 46 percent to 50 percent higher than non-cohabitors who marry.4 Cohabitation puts marital stability "at risk." Responsible marriage preparation needs to address these risk factors.

Priests are not without basic resources for developing good pastoral responses for dealing with cohabiting couples who move to marriage. There are directional guides from Church documents and current writings to help them both form a "clear vision" and bring a "non-anxious presence" to their pastoral responses.

  • Cohabitation is not a canonical impediment to marriage. A 1999 report from the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family summarizes a review of canon law on the topic with this reflection:

    Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation. Marriage preparation may continue even if the couple refuses to separate. Pastoral ministers can be assured that to assist couples in regularizing their situation is not to approve of cohabitation.5

  • In his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio,6 Pope John Paul II recognizes common factors leading to cohabitation and then gives directions on appropriate responses.

    The Pope states that factors leading couples into "de facto free unions include difficult economic, cultural or religious situations, extreme ignorance or poverty, and a certain psychological immaturity that makes couples afraid to enter a permanent union."

    He continues:

    The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation.

  • The August 1999 informational report from the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family (cited above) reviews current research on the characteristics of couples who cohabit. It surveys representative policies in U.S. dioceses regarding specific issues.

    Why, then, do many priests feel it best to ignore the issue of cohabitation with a couple even when the data show that they are at risk for future marriage breakdown? Why do many clergy neglect intentional, informed and properly shaped marriage preparation that can help cohabiting couples have successful marriages?

    At the other extreme, why do some priests feel obliged to take a punitive approach to them, rejecting them out-of-hand or creating situations that will normally be read as punishment. Why not "smooth the path for them to regularize their situation"?

    Experience suggests to me two reasons why priests may react rather than respond to the cohabitation phenomenon when it faces them in marriage preparation:

    (a) They have honest and deeply felt values and philosophies that seem to be in conflict with a direct, intentional, positive approach and/or

    (b) They don't know what to do. They lack awareness of the special needs of cohabiting couples or don't have the resources to deal with them.

    Common ‘Anxious Presence’ Attitudes

    Attitudes, values and philosophies across a broad continuum can cause many people, including priests, to bring an "anxious presence" when they are dealing with the phenomenon of cohabitation. Cohabitation is either ignored in preparing couples for marriage or it is handled in nonproductive ways. Some common reactions/responses can be identified.

    On one side of the continuum:

  • "Cohabiting couples who move to marriage have no unique needs/ issues. They are exactly like couples who marry without cohabiting."

    This is an assumption of those with little information about current research on the topic. It can also be the expressed view of some who produce marriage-preparation resources and have no wish to update them.

  • "Cohabitation should logically give couples a better chance to succeed at marriage. There must be something wrong with the studies/data that indicate that cohabiting couples are more at risk for unsatisfactory and unstable marriages."

    Earlier voices in psychology, anthropology, sociology and theology had theorized that "trial marriages" would cut down the high rate of failing marriages. One of the great surprises of research done in all First World countries over the last 10 years is the consistent finding that marriages that follow cohabitation are, less stable and have a 50-percent-higher divorce rate than the average.

  • "It is not cohabitation that creates the higher divorce rate for couples. It is the selection factor. Those who have negative attitudes about marriage, fear of commitment, strong individualism, low religious practice, etc., are more likely than those without such attitudes to sort themselves into cohabiting situations. These attitudes can sabotage the marriage. It is not the cohabitation situation per se that is the problem."

    There is some truth here. The reality is, however, that cohabitors who move to marriage very often bring these sabotaging attitudes into the marriage. Marriage preparation needs to help couples re-examine and these patterns of thinking and choosing.

  • "The marriage breakup rate of cohabitors who marry looks higher than non-cohabitors because they are not yet the total norm. The number of cohabitors is growing, and once they become the overwhelming majority, the 'cohabitation effect' as a factor in marriage dissolution will disappear."

    Probably true. If it happens that way, however, will the risk factors go away, or will the overwhelming majority of couples be more at risk? Nothing suggests that the risk factors will diminish.

    On the opposite side of the spectrum, other approaches also call for examination:

  • "To acknowledge cohabitation and attempt to deal with its risks during marriage preparation is to legitimize it and make it the acceptable norm."

    When the FOCCUS inventory (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding and Study) added a series of questions for cohabiting couples in 1997, we heard this objection. This approach says to the couple, "I'll pretend I don't know you're cohabiting if you pretend you don't know that I know." Given the high-risk factors in cohabitors' marriages, it is no longer responsible to ignore issues that need to be named and processed.

  • "There must be consequences (sometimes punitive) imposed by the Church on cohabiting couples when they come to marry, or else others will be encouraged to cohabit."

    The last 15 years in the United States have provided experiences of priests or parishes that have refused to prepare cohabiting couples for marriage unless they separated before the wedding or that appeared to penalize the couples by limiting the kind of marriage celebration allowed them. There is, in general, no demonstrated reduction in the incidence of cohabitation as a result of these approaches. Instead, parishes and dioceses report that the practices often encourage the couples to lie or be deceitful about their situation; additionally, the cohabitation risk factors are never identified and addressed.

    Discouraging individuals from the practice of cohabitation, however, remains a need and a vital concern. This is most effectively done by education and moral development during adolescence or young adulthood, before a decision is made to cohabit.

  • "I am betraying my values and beliefs if I disapprove of cohabitation and yet help a couple deal with the risk factors so they can build a successful marriage."

    The value of strong, sacramental marriage needs to be considered here along with the recognition that preparing a cohabiting couple for marriage does not imply acceptance of cohabitation. Indeed, those cohabitors who move to marriage are stepping out against a common cultural message, which says, "Marriage does not matter." This is what Pope John Paul II promotes in Familiaris Consortio when he talks about the value of "smoothing the path to regularize their situation."

    Someone defined "freedom" for me as "choice within the givens." I find this useful in sorting my attitudes and making decisions about my responses to people and situations. I don't have all the choices I want. Around the issues of cohabitation, I would suggest:

    • It is a given that cohabiting couples do bring to marriage certain attitudes and patterns that can put them at risk for marital instability.

    • It is a given that punitive/negative approaches do not cut down the incidence of cohabitation.

    • It is a given that couples who can identify, discuss and deal with issues do better with making positive choices and/or changes regarding those issues.

    • It is a given that marriage preparation has shown itself to be a "key learning moment," a major life-transition opportunity to re-examine issues, build skills and understand what a successful marriage requires. We need to use it to deal with the special needs of cohabiting couples.

    Special Needs And Risk Factors

    In the decade of the 1990s, cohabitation became a highly researched phenomenon. Much more remains to be explored, but a good body of knowledge exists to serve the formation of "clear vision with non-anxious presence" in clergy leadership. David Popenoe and Barbara Defoe Whitehead provide an excellent summary of the problems identified by current research in Should We Live Together?: What Young Adults Need to Know about Cohabitation before Marriage.7

    The study guide for Preparing Cohabiting Couples for Marriage, a video produced by FOCCUS, Inc., also identifies specific research related to the major risk factors faced by cohabitors who marry, factors which are cited below.8

    Fundamentally, cohabitors preparing for marriage need to deal with the same basic issues and skills facing all couples (that is, communication, conflict resolution, in-laws, money, sex, children, etc.). Within and beyond the general topics, however, cohabitors and those working with them in marriage preparation need to bring a lens, an emphasis, a deliberate look at the special needs and risk factors that are characteristic of their situation.

    Research suggests two sources of these needs and potential problems. The first, predisposing factors, was cited earlier as the "selection factor" and includes attitudes toward marriage as an institution, fear of divorce and expectations of marriage. The factors that brought the couple to cohabitation form a large part of what "gets in the way" when they bring them to marriage.

    The second source of potential problems is the experience of cohabitation itself. Those patterns that individuals/couples develop or reinforce during cohabitation that commonly become problematic include conflict-resolution styles, money management and practices around sexual fidelity.

    For most couples, these two sources interact and operate together. It is probably useful to name some key content categories from both sources that research identifies as characteristic of cohabitors who marry.

  • Attitudes about marriage. Cohabitors are more likely than non-cohabitors to reject marriage as an institution; to fear marriage because of models they have experienced; to have a greater expectation of marriage failure and greater openness to divorce; to struggle with the meaning of commitment; and to be conflicted over how to deal both with marriage and a strong sense of individualism. Often partners are in different places on some or all of these issues.

    Key questions are: "How did you move to this decision to marry?" and "How does the decision to marry differ from your decision to live together?" Presenting a sacramental, covenant view of marriage to the couple often opens them to a new view.

  • Expectations of marriage. Once cohabitors marry, they are more likely to be dissatisfied with marriage than non-cohabitors. They may have idealized that they worked through all their problems during cohabitation, and they are often not prepared for the ordinary cycles of infatuation-disillusionment-intimacy.

    Since most cohabitations last about 1.4 years, some couples have gone through the "honeymoon" period during cohabitation and are moving into a natural cycle of disillusionment when they marry. Some believe that all relationships should be without pain or boredom, or they have no expectation of being able to get through "rough patches." Who are their models for working through the cycles, the "seasons" of marriage?

  • Skills in conflict resolution. Cohabitors who marry have more problems with conflict resolution than couples who have not cohabited and often need skill building in this area. They also have a higher rate of domestic violence. Some cohabitors are "afraid to rock the boat" for fear of breaking the relationship, and so they come into marriage having avoided dealing effectively with conflict.

    On the opposite extreme, some feel no need during cohabitation to protect the relationship since they can walk out at any time; they practice little or no self-discipline in dealing with conflict. These people come into cohabitation with patterns of practicing verbal, mental or physical abuse. Individuals from broken or unhealthy families are more likely to cohabit. In addition, they may bring poor patterns of conflict resolution to the relationship. For all couples, the quality of conflict resolution is the greatest predictor of overall marital quality.

  • Money/finance matters. Cohabitors who marry have more conflict over money than non-cohabitors. Research indicates that in dealing with finance areas, cohabitors have "independence and competition" as defining characteristics, while good marriage calls for "interdependence and mutuality." Cohabiting men are more threatened than married men by female partners who earn more than they do. One cohabiting partner may expect change after marriage in the way finance is handled, while the other expects the patterns to stay the same. Marriage preparation needs to help couples articulate expectations and challenges.

  • Children. Forty percent of cohabitors have children in their relationship, either the children of the relationship or children that one or the other brings to the relationship. In general, any relationship bringing children to a marriage has a higher incidence of instability. Sometimes cohabitors are marrying only, or primarily, to bring stability to the life of the children. The question needs to be asked: "Would you be marrying if it were not for the sake of the children?"

  • Sexual issues. When it comes to the question of fidelity, cohabitation is more like dating than it is like marriage. Research on women indicates that cohabitors are more likely than non-cohabitors to have secondary sexual partners once they marry. What are the sexual fidelity patterns and expectations of each partner?

  • View of self or partner as poor marriage material. Many people cohabit because they do not see themselves or their partners as good marriage material. In fact, cohabitors have a higher incidence of negative social or drug/alcohol-related patterns than that of the general population. Forty percent of cohabitors break up their relationships. This may be because some recognize that they are poor relationship material. Fifty percent of cohabitors, however, move on to marriage. It is important to help them examine if the dysfunctions in self or the other have changed. If not, how will they deal with them in marriage?

    In exploring the special needs and risk factors for cohabiting couples who marry it is essential to remember the following:

    1. They are not a homogenous group. There is great diversity among them related to, for example: their initial reasons for cohabiting; why they choose to marry at this time; the length of the cohabitation experience; whether or not either is a "serial" cohabitor who has lived with others; whether or not there are children in the relationship; and what has happened in the cohabitation experience itself. Some are much more "at risk" than others. It is important not to assume that "one size fits all."

    2. They are not doomed to fail at marriage. Calling couples to examine risk issues during marriage preparation needs to be done in a way that avoids creating the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that they cannot succeed at marriage. It is important to recognize that awareness, good decision-making and developing good skills and attitudes can make a great difference.

    Dealing with cohabitation is a difficult and often painful reality in today's Church. Fortunately, good resources from canonical and pastoral directives are available, and we have a growing body of information about the profile and needs of the couples who move from cohabitation to marriage. Both can inform the priest in his search for the "clear vision with a non-anxious presence" that is needed in his pastoral response.


    1 Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985).

    2 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Marital Status and Living Arrangements, March 1997 (Washington, D.C.: 1998).

    3 Larry Bumpass and Hsien Hen Lu, Trends in Cohabitations and Implications for Children's Family Contexts, unpublished manuscript (Madison, Wis.: Center for Demography, University of Wisconsin, 1998).

    4 Larry Bumpass and James A. Sweet, Cohabitation, Marriage and Union Stability: Preliminary Findings from NSFH2, Working Paper 65 (Madison, Wis.: Center for Demography, University of Wisconsin, 1995).

    5 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Marriage and Family, Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: An Informational Report on New Realities and Pastoral Practices (Washington, D.C.: USCC Publishing Services, 1999) and Origins (24:14), pp. 213-24.

    6 Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (no. 81).

    7 David Popenoe and Barbara Defoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage (New Brunswick, N.J: The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 1999).

    8 Sister Barbara Markey, N.D., Preparing Cohabiting Couples for Marriage, video and study guide (Omaha, Neb.: FOCCUS, Inc., Family Life Office, Archdiocese of Omaha, 1997).

    SISTER MARKEY is the director of the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Omaha. She is also the associate director of the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in Omaha.

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