Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples
An Information Report on New Realities and Pastoral Practices
Copyright 1999 United States Catholic Conference, Inc, Washington, D.C. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce excerpts in articles or newsletters or for reproduction and free distribution in its entirety.
Today almost half the couples who come for marriage preparation in the Catholic Church are in a cohabiting relationship.1 Cohabitation, in a commonly understood sense, means living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Living together in this way involves varying degrees of physical and emotional interaction. Such a relationship is a false sign. It contradicts the meaning of a sexual relationship in marriage as the total gift of oneself in fidelity, exclusivity, and permanency.
Over the past twenty-five years, cohabitation has become a major social phenomenon affecting the institution of marriage and family life.2 It is also an extremely perplexing issue for priests, deacons, and lay pastoral ministers who help couples prepare for marriage in the Church.
In 1988, the NCCB Committee on Pastoral Practices published Faithful to Each Other Forever: A Catholic Handbook of Pastoral Help for Marriage Preparation. The intent of this volume was to be a resource for those involved in marriage preparation work. It remains a very useful and comprehensive pastoral tool.
Faithful to Each Other Forever discussed (pp. 71-77) the question of cohabitation under two headings: (a) input on cohabitation from personal experiences and the behavioral sciences and (b) pastoral approaches to cohabiting couples. In this latter section, the handbook drew upon the written policies of a few dioceses to present a range of possible options for working with cohabiting couples who come seeking marriage in the Church.
Now, nearly twelve years after the original work of Faithful to Each Other Forever, the cumulative pastoral experience of ministering to cohabiting couples has broadened and deepened. This is reflected, at least partially, in the increased number of dioceses that now include a treatment of the issue within their marriage preparation policies.
In this present resource paper, the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family builds upon the foundation provided by Faithful to Each Other Forever when it first treated the question of cohabitation. The paper adopts the same two-part structure: empirical data and pastoral approaches. Its purpose is two-fold:
- To impart INFORMATION that is current and relevant to all who participate in the Church's ministry with engaged couples, including those in diocesan leadership who might be in the process of revising their marriage preparation policies;
- To offer a DESCRIPTIVE OVERVIEW of common pastoral approaches now being taken in U.S. dioceses to the various situations and issues connected with the phenomenon of cohabiting couples.
This paper is neither an official statement of the Committee on Marriage and Family nor of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It does not offer formal recommendations for action. It is intended as a resource paper, offering a compilation of resources and a reflection of the present "state of the question" regarding certain issues of cohabitation.
In this way, it wishes to help:
- bishops and diocesan staff who are reviewing and possibly revising their marriage preparation policies;
- priests, deacons, pastoral ministers, and lay volunteers who want to become more informed and effective in working with cohabiting couples who come to marriage preparation programs;
- those who are responsible for in-service and continuing education of clergy and laity who carry out the Church's ministry of marriage preparation.
As pointed out in Faithful to Each Other Forever (p.71), the Committee acknowledges a distinction between sexual activity outside of marriage and cohabitation. They are not identical matters. One can exist without the other. Couples may engage in sexual intercourse without living together; other couples may share the same residence but not live in a sexual relationship. The focus of this paper, however, is on cohabitation understood as both having a sexual relationship and living together in the same residence. Moreover, in Part Two, the paper focuses even more narrowly on a segment of cohabiting couples, namely, those who choose to move out of this type of relationship and into the lifelong commitment of marriage. It is this group of engaged couples who pose certain unique pastoral challenges.
In both sections of the paper, the Committee has chosen a question-and-answer format in order to organize the material in a concise manner. The Committee is very grateful to Sr. Barbara Markey, ND, Ph.D., Director of the Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Omaha, for helping to compile and edit the first section. In order to develop the second section, the Committee staff collected marriage preparation policies representing 129 dioceses from around the country. The pastoral approaches outlined in this section emerge from an analysis of these policies, from the knowledge of current pastoral practice, and from consultations with pastoral ministers. In particular, the Committee thanks Dr. James Healy, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, for his assistance with this part of the paper.
Finally, in the course of preparing this report, the Committee on Pastoral Practices and Bishop David E. Fellhauer, chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs reviewed and recommended changes in the text. We are very grateful for their expert involvement.
Empirical Information About Cohabitation and Marriage
Those couples who are in a cohabiting relationship and who come to the Church for marriage preparation represent only a percentage of the total cohabiting population. Nonetheless, to understand and respond to them one must appreciate some aspects of the broader phenomenon of cohabitation. This, in turn, is set within a context of widespread sexual activity outside of marriage. In this section, we provide highlights of what social science has discovered about cohabitation in general and with specific reference to cohabiting couples who eventually marry. 3
1. How widespread is cohabitation?
Cohabitation is a pervasive and growing phenomenon with a negative impact on the role of marriage as the foundation of the family. The incidence of cohabitation is much greater than is indicated by the number of cohabiting couples presenting themselves for marriage. Slightly more than half of the couples in first-time cohabitations ever marry; the overall percentage of those who marry is much lower when it includes those who cohabit more than once. Cohabitation as a permanent or temporary alternative to marriage is a major factor in the declining centrality of marriage in family structure. It is a phenomenon altering the face of family life in first-world countries.
- 11% of couples in the United States cohabited in 1965--74; today, a little over half of all first marriages are preceded by cohabitation. (Bumpass & Lu, 1998; Popenoe and Whitehead, 1999)
- Across all age groups, there has been a 45% increase in cohabitation from 1970 to 1990. It is estimated that 60% to 80% of the couples coming to be married are cohabiting. (US Bureau of the Census, 1995; Bumpass, Cherlin & Sweet, 1991)
- Overall, fewer persons are choosing to be married today; the decision to cohabit as a permanent or temporary alternative to marriage is a primary reason (Bumpass, NSFH Paper #66, 1995) The percent of couples being married in the United States declined 25% from 1975 to 1995. The Official Catholic Directory reported 406,908 couples married in the Catholic Church in 1974; in 1995, it reported a 25% decline to 305,385 couples.
- Only 53% of first cohabiting unions result in marriage. The percentage of couples marrying from second and third cohabitations is even lower. (Bumpass & Lu, 1998; Bumpass, 1990; Wu, 1995; Wineberg & McCarthy, 1998) 10% to 30% of cohabitors intend never to marry. (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995)
- All first-world countries are experiencing the phenomenon of cohabitation and the corrosive impact it has on marriage as the center of the family. (Bumpass, NSFH paper #66, 1995; Hall & Zhao, 1995; Thomasson, 1998; Haskey and Kiernan, 1989)
2. What is the profile of the cohabiting household?
The profile of the average cohabiting household is both expected and somewhat surprising. Persons with low levels of religious participation and those who have experienced disruption in their parents' marriages or a previous marriage of their own are likely candidates for cohabitation. Persons with lower levels of education and earning power cohabit more often and marry less often than those with higher education. The average cohabiting household stays together for just over one year and children are part of two-fifths of these households. Men are more often serial or repeat cohabitors, moving from woman to woman, while women tend to cohabit only one time.
- 40% of cohabiting households include children, either the children of the relationship or the children that one or both partners bring to the relationship. (US. Bureau of Census, 1998, Wu, 1995; Schoen,1992)
- The median duration of cohabitation is 1.3 years. (Bumpass & Lu, 1998; Wu, 1995; Schoen & Davis, 1992). Previously married persons cohabit more often than never-married; two-thirds of those separated or divorced and under age 35 cohabit. They are more likely than never-married cohabiting couples to have children in the household and they are much less likely than never-married to marry their current partner or someone else. (Wineberg & -McCarthy, 1998; Wu, 1995; Bumpass and Sweet, 1989)
- Those not completing high school are almost twice as likely to cohabit as those who complete college. 40% of college graduates, however, do cohabit at some time. Only 26% of women with college degrees cohabit compared to 41% of women without a high school diploma. The higher the level of education, the more likely the cohabitor is to marry the partner. (Qian, 1998; Bumpass & Lu, 1998; Thornton, Axinn, Teachman, 1995; Willis & Michael, 1994)
- Women are likely to cohabit only once and with the person they subsequently marry; men are more likely to cohabit with a series of partners. (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989, Teachman and Polanko, 1990)
- Individuals, especially women, who experienced disruption in their parents' marriage are more likely to cohabit than those who had parents with stable marriages. (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Kiernan, 1992; Black & Sprenkle, 1991; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989)
- Persons with low levels of religious participation and who rate religion of low importance are more likely to cohabit and less likely to marry their partner than those who consider religion important and practice it. There is no difference in the frequency of cohabitation by religious denomination; there is a significant difference in cohabitation frequency by the level of religious participation. (Krishnan, 1998; Lye & Waldron, 1997; Thornton, Axinn & Hill, 1992; Liejbroer, 1991; Sweet, 1989)
- In general, those in cohabiting households are more independent, more liberal in attitude, and more risk-oriented than non-cohabitors. (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg & Waite, 1995; Cunningham & Antill, 1994; Huffman, Chang, Rausch & Schaffer, 1994; DeMaris & MacDonald, 1993)
4. What are the reasons for cohabitation?
The declining significance of marriage as the center of the family is in large part a result of growing secularization and individualization in first-world cultures. Aversion to long term commitments is one of the identifying characteristics of these trends and a major reason for cohabitation. Key milestones previously associated with marriage, such as sexual relationships, childbearing, and establishing couple households, now occur without marriage. Individuals choose to cohabit under the influence of these cultural values but also for very individual reasons. Some are seeking to ensure a good future marriage and believe that a "trial marriage" will accomplish this; many are simply living together because it seems more economically feasible or because it has become the social norm. In general, cohabitors are not a homogenous or monolithic group, however fully their general characteristics can be described. The reasons for choosing cohabitation are usually mixed: cohabitation may be in equal parts an alternative to marriage and an attempt to prepare for marriage.
There are both broad cultural reasons and a range of individual reasons for cohabitation.
The individual reasons for cohabitation are varied:
- The cultural reasons are descriptive of most first world countries: changing values on family and decline in the importance of marriage; (Bumpass, NSFH #66, 1995; Clarkberg, Stolzenberg & Waite, 1995; Parker, 1990)
- Declining confidence in religious and social institutions to provide guidance; (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995; Thornton, Axinn & Hill, 1992)
- Delaying of marriage for economic or social reasons while sexual relationships begin earlier. 85% of unmarried youth are sexually active by age 20. "Marriage no longer signifies the beginning of [a] sexual relationship, the beginning of childbearing or the point at which couples establish joint households" (Bumpass, #66, 1995). (Popenoe & Whitehead, 1999; Peplau, Hill & Rubin, 1993; Rindfuss & Van den Heuvel, 1990)
- Fear of or disbelief in long-term commitment; (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995; Bumpass, DeMaris & MacDonald, 1993)
- Desire to avoid divorce; (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995; Thornton, 1991; Bumpass, 1990)
- Desire for economic security; (Rindfuss & Van den Heuvel, 1990; Schoen & Owens, 1992)
- Stage of personal development, escape from home, "rite of passage"; (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995)
- The desire for stability for raising of children; (Wu, 1995; Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991; Manning & Lichter, 1996)
- The pressure to conform to current mores that having a cohabiting partner is a measure of social success, personal desirability, adult transition; (Rindfuss, Van Den Heuvel, 1990; Schoen & Owens, 1992)
- Desire to test the relationship; (Nicole & Baldwin, 1995; Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991; Bumpass, 1990)
- Rejection of the institution of marriage and desire for an alternative to marriage; (Sweet & Bumpass, 1992; Rindfuss, Van den Heuvel, 1990)
5. What about cohabiting and marriage?
Overall, less than half of cohabiting couples ever marry. Those who do choose to marry are in some part counter-culture to the growing view that it is certainly not necessary and perhaps not good to marry. Those who choose to marry instead of continuing to cohabit are the "good news" in a culture that is increasingly anti-marriage. Those cohabiting couples who move to marriage seem to be the "best risk" of a high-risk group: they have fewer risk factors than those cohabitors who choose not to marry. Even so, they still divorce at a rate 50% higher than couples who have never cohabited. They are a high-risk group for divorce and their special risk factors need to be identified and addressed, especially at the time of marriage preparation, if the couples are to build solid marriages.
Only 50% to 60% of cohabitors marry the persons with whom they cohabit at a given time. 76% report plans to marry their partner but only about half do. The percentage of couples marrying after second and third cohabitation is even lower. (Brown & Booth, 1996; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989)
- Up to 30% of cohabitors intend never to marry. (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995)
- 20% of cohabiting partners disagree about whether or not they intend to marry. (Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991)
- When cohabitors do marry, they are more at risk for subsequent divorce than those who did not cohabit before marriage. In the United States, the risk of divorce is 50% higher for cohabitors than non-cohabitors. In some western European countries, it is estimated to be 80% higher. (Bumpass & Sweet, 1995; Hall & Zhao, 1995; Bracher, Santow, Morgan & Trussell, 1993; DeMaris & Rao, 1992; Glenn, 1990)
- When previously married cohabitors marry, their subsequent divorce rate is higher than that of cohabiting couples who have not been previously married. (Wineberg & McCarthy, 1998; Wu, 1995; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989)
- Those who cohabit more than once prior to marriage, serial or repeat cohabitors, have higher divorce rates when they do marry than those who cohabit only once. (Brown & Booth, 1996; Stets,1993; Thomson & Colella, 1991)
- There is some indication that the divorce rate is higher for people who cohabit for a longer period of time, especially over three years. The data on this are mixed. (Lillard Brien & Waite, 1995; Thomson & Colella, 1991; Bennett, Blanc & Bloom, 1988)
- Cohabitors who marry break up in the earlier years of marriage. Cohabitors and noncohabitors have the same rate of marriage stability if the marriage remains intact over seven years. (Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988)
- Cohabitors who do choose to marry appear to be of lesser risk for later divorce than those cohabitors who choose not to marry would be. They appear to be the best risk of a high-risk group. (Thomson & Colella, 1991)
6. What are the factors that put cohabitors who marry at risk?
Individuals who choose to cohabit have certain attitudes, issues, and patterns that lead them to make the decision to cohabit. These same attitudes, issues, and patterns often become the predisposing factors to put them at high risk for divorce when they do choose to move from cohabitation to marriage. The cohabitation experience itself creates risk factors, bad habits, that can sabotage the subsequent marriage. These attitudes and patterns can be identified and brought to the couple preparing for marriage for examination, decision-making, skill-building, change. Without creating "self-fulfilling prophecies," those preparing cohabiting couples for marriage can help them identify and work with issues around commitment, fidelity, individualism, pressure, appropriate expectations.
Many studies explore why cohabitors are more at risk when they marry. The research suggests that there are two overlapping and reinforcing sources for risk:
- Predisposing attitudes and characteristics they take into the marriage;
- Experiences from the cohabitation itself that create problem patterns and behaviors.
Predisposing Attitudes and Characteristics:
- Cohabitors as a group are less committed to the institution of marriage and more accepting of divorce. As problems and issues arise to challenge the marriage, they are more likely to seek divorce as the solution. (Lillard, Brien & Waite, 1995; Bracher, Santow, Morgan & Trussell, 1993; Thomson & Colella, 1991; Bennett, Blanc, & Bloom, 1988)
- "Sexual exclusivity" is less an indicator of commitment for cohabitors than for noncohabitors. In this regard, cohabitation is more like dating than marriage. After marriage, a woman who cohabited before marriage is 3.3 times more likely to be sexually unfaithful than a woman who had not cohabited before marriage. (Forste & Tanfer, 1996)
- Cohabitors identify themselves or the relationship as a poor risk for long-term happiness more often than do noncohabitors. There is evidence that some cohabitors do have more problematic, lower-quality relationships with more individual and couple problems than noncohabitors. Often this is why they feel the need to test the relationship through cohabitation. There is the probability that some of these significant problems will carry over into the marriage relationship. (Lillard, Brien, Waite, 1995; Thomson & Colella, 1991; Booth & Johnson, 1988)
- Cohabitors tend to hold individualism as a more important value than noncohabitors do. While married persons generally value interdependence and the exchange of resources, cohabitors tend to value independence and economic equality. These values do not necessarily change just because a cohabiting couple decides to move into marriage. (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg & Waite, 1995; Waite & Joyner, 1992; Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin, 1991)
- Cohabitors can allow themselves to marry because of pressure from family and others and because of pressure to provide a stable home for children. While it is generally better for the children in a cohabiting household or a child to be born to a cohabiting couple to be raised in a stable marriage, this is not by itself a sufficient reason for the marriage. While family and friends are often right to encourage marriage for a cohabiting couple, a marriage made under such pressure is problematic unless the couple chooses it for more substantial reasons. (Barber & Axinn, 1998; Wu, 1995; Mahler, 1996; Manning & Smock 1995; Teachman & Polanko, 1990)
- Cohabitors are demonstrated to have inappropriately high expectations of marriage that can lead them to be disillusioned with the ordinary problems or challenges of marriage. Cohabitors generally report lower satisfaction with marriage after they marry than do noncohabitors. There is a danger that they think they have "worked out everything" and that any further challenges are the fault of the institution of marriage. (Brown, 1998; Nock, 1995; Booth & Johnson, 1988)
- The experience of cohabitation changes the attitudes about commitment and permanence and makes couples more open to divorce. (Axinn & Barber, 1997; Nock 1995; Schoen & Weinick 1993; Axinn & Thornton, 1992)
- Cohabitors have more conflict over money after they marry than noncohabitors do. Often they have set patterns of autonomy or competition about making and handling money during the time of cohabitation and this carries over to the marriage. Many couples have one pattern of money handling in the cohabitation household and have not discussed clearly how one or the other individual expects this pattern to change after marriage. (Singh & Lindsay, 1996; Ressler, Rand, Walters & Meliss, 1995; Waite, 1995)
- Domestic violence is a more common problem with cohabitors than with married persons and this pattern will carry over to a subsequent marriage relationship. Cohabiting partners can have a lesser felt need to protect the relationship while they are cohabiting because they do not see it as permanent. If this is the case, some will begin dysfunctional patterns of problem-solving. The existence of the partner's children in the relationship or stress over the permanency of the relationship are common causes of conflict and sometimes violence. (Jackson, 1996; McLaughlin, Leonard & Senchak 1992; Stets & Straus, 1989)
- Cohabitors who marry are less effective at conflict resolution than those who did not cohabit. Either fear of upsetting an uncommitted relationship or the lack of need to protect a temporary relationship can be factors that lead cohabiting couples into poor patterns of conflict resolution which they then carry into marriage. (Booth & Johnson, 1988)
- Using sex as a controlling factor can be a negative pattern that cohabiting couples can bring to their subsequent marriage. Reinforcement of negative family of origin patterns can also have occurred in the cohabiting relationship and be carried over to marriage. Both of these patterns are common issues that dating couples carry into marriage, but they can be exaggerated by the cohabitation experience. (Waite & Joyner, 1996; Waite, 1995; Thornton & Axinn, 1993)
Pastoral Issues with Cohabiting Couples in Marriage Preparation
Preparation for marriage begins long before the couple approaches the priest or pastoral minister. In his Apostolic Exhortation On the Family (Familiaris Consortio, #81), Pope John Paul II strongly urges that young people be educated about chastity, fidelity, and the meaning of marriage as a sacrament. Religious education, parish-based catechetical programs, and chastity curricula in elementary schools are all part of this effort. The Catholic Chastity Curriculum Directory (NCCB/USCC, Fall 1999), a directory of available materials that follow Catholic teaching, can be a helpful resource.
The high school years, in particular, can be a prime time for dealing with these issues, when dating, and the desire to date, are foremost in the minds of adolescents. During this time they can be given the spiritual foundation that helps them to make informed, faith-filled, and life-giving choices throughout their lives. With this foundation, it can be hoped that couples will choose not to cohabit before marriage.
Nonetheless, we know that many couples do live together before they marry. Many pastoral ministers identify cohabitation as the most difficult issue they deal with in marriage preparation. They are faced with the dilemma of addressing a situation that is contrary to our moral principles while attempting to validate and sanctify the relationship of the couple through the Sacrament of Marriage (Archdiocese of Miami, Marriage Preparation Guidelines, 1997; Diocese of Phoenix, Marriage Preparation Policy Handbook, 1998).4
We offer the following pastoral suggestions to priests, deacons, and pastoral ministers who prepare couples for marriage. They are intended to provide general guidance only since each couple's pastoral needs and circumstances are unique. In developing these suggestions we join with many dioceses in turning to Familiaris Consortio for inspiration. "In Familiaris Consortio the Holy Father offers sound guidance," says the Miami Archdiocese's marriage preparation policy, referring to the challenge posed by cohabiting couples.
In section 81 of Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II points out that de facto free unions, i.e., those unions without any publicly recognized institutional bond, are an increasing concern. He recognizes that various factors can lead a couple into a free union. These include difficult economic, cultural, or religious situations, extreme ignorance or poverty, and a certain psychological immaturity that makes couples afraid to enter into a permanent union.
The Pope continues: "Each of these elements presents the Church with arduous pastoral problems, by reason of the serious consequences deriving from them, both religious and moral...and also social consequences...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" (Familiaris Consortio, #81).
In the discussion below, we attempt to take the Holy Father's advice and apply it to concrete questions that arise during marriage preparation with cohabiting couples. Our goal is to work through the challenges--"smooth the path"--so that cohabiting couples will be able to celebrate a sacramental marriage.
1. How to begin working with cohabiting couples who approach the church for marriage preparation?
Faithful to Each Other Forever notes that two extremes are to be avoided:
- Immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and
- Ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship.
In the decade following the document's publication, pastoral experience, and diocesan policies have borne out the wisdom of this approach. The majority of policies and practices follow a middle way between the two extremes, one that integrates general correction with understanding and compassion. The U.S. bishops' plan for young adult ministry, Sons and Daughters of the Light, points out that during marriage preparation the Church connects with more young adults than at any other time outside Sunday Mass. "For some, this may be their first step back into church life" (Sons and Daughters of the Light, p. 30).
Marriage preparation is an opportunity for evangelization and catechesis. The Gary Diocese points out that "this is a 'teachable moment' and the parish priest must be cautious lest he alienates the couple from the church community. This calls for pastoral support in the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past" (Guidelines for Marriage as a Sacrament, Diocese of Gary, 1996).
While couples need to be welcomed with the gospel values of love, understanding, and acceptance, they also need to be challenged by the gospel message of commitment and faithfulness. Faithful to Each Other Forever points out that in the past pastoral ministers often overlooked the cohabitation, not pressing the couple too hard for fear of alienating them from the church. Because of the awkwardness of dealing with the situation, some chose to ignore the entire issue. Increasingly, however, pastoral ministers have abandoned this approach in favor of addressing the cohabitation gently but directly. The Church has consistently taught that human love "demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another" that can only be made in marriage (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2391). Since cohabitation violates the Church's teaching about sexual love and marriage, church ministers must speak and teach about it. Doing so, as one diocese points out, "is an act of love for the couple in the process of spiritual growth" ("Pastoral Care of Sexually Active/Co-Habiting Couples Before Marriage," Diocese of Peoria, 1997).
How can pastoral ministers know if a couple is cohabiting? This can be a delicate situation. Very few diocesan policies offer suggestions for surfacing this issue during marriage preparation. Given the potentially harmful effects of cohabitation on marital stability, however, pastoral ministers are beginning to recognize a responsibility to raise the issue. Certain tip-offs (e.g., giving the same address and/or telephone number) can alert the pastoral minister that the couple may be cohabiting. Some couples are quite open about their living arrangements. A pastoral minister who is sensitive but straightforward can encourage a similarly candid attitude on the part of the couple. Some pastoral ministers discuss cohabitation in general terms, noting the issues it raises and the potentially harmful effects on the marriage. However it surfaces, cohabitation should be discussed early in the marriage preparation process. If it is not possible or advisable to discuss it immediately, it should be flagged as an issue to be addressed at a subsequent face-to-face meeting. Some marriage preparation programs use the pre-marital inventory FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, and Study). FOCCUS now includes discussion questions for cohabiting couples, and the FOCCUS Manual includes additional material on facilitating discussion with this group.
2. What are the specific objectives of doing marriage preparation with cohabiting couples?
The general goal of marriage preparation with all couples is the same: To create a clear awareness of the essential characteristics of Christian marriage: unity, fidelity, indissolubility, fruitfulness; the priority of the sacramental grace that unites the couple to the love of Christ; and the willingness to carry out the mission proper to families in the educational, social and ecclesial areas (Pontifical Council for the Family, Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage, 45 ). For cohabiting couples, a specific goal may be added: To encourage the couple to reflect on their situation and why they decided to cohabit and to provide insights into possible consequences, factors that may present special challenges to them, or put them at risk for later marital disruption. (See, for example, marriage preparation policies in the Dioceses of Rockford (1992), Sioux Falls (1988), and Peoria (1997), among others). To accomplish this second goal, the pastoral minister invites the couple to reflect on their experience of living together and its implications for a sacramental marriage. The following questions (or appropriate variations), drawn from a newly developed section in FOCCUS, can be discussed:
- Why did you originally choose to live together? How does the commitment you wish to make now differ from the commitment you made when you decided to cohabit?
- How do your family and community feel about your living together? How do these feelings affect you?
- What are your reasons for wanting to marry at this time? Is there any reluctance to marry? Is pressure from family or around children a major reason for marriage now?
- What have you learned from your experience of living together? How do you expect your relationship to grow and change in the future? Does either of you expect marriage to be free from times of discontent? How well do you deal with conflict? Have you agreed on any changes in the way you will handle money after you are married?
- Why do you want to marry in the Catholic Church at this time? Do you understand the concerns the Church has had about your cohabiting situation?
- What does marriage as a sacrament mean to you?
- What do you think will be the largest barriers to a lifelong marriage for you? How do you think you will be especially challenged by the vow of faithfulness?
- After these discussions, the pastoral minister may ask the couple how the information gained from the preparation process has raised their understanding of church teaching and cohabitation, and what response they will make in light of this knowledge. At this point, the pastoral minister may ascertain the couple's readiness and ability to enter into a sacramental marriage.
3. What distinctions are made among cohabiting couples?
Some diocesan policies (e.g., Cleveland (1988), Buffalo (1992), Michigan Dioceses' Common Policy) note the following differences among various types of cohabiting couples, based on the reasons given for the cohabitation. Each has distinct pastoral implications.
- For couples who have seriously planned for marriage, and who decided to live together for practical reasons such as finance or convenience, the pastoral minister can focus on their understanding of the meaning of the sacrament and the commitment to permanence and stability in marriage.
- For couples whose cohabitation seems more casual, and for whom no previous commitment seems to have been made, in addition to the treatment of commitment and sacrament, special attention is given to overall readiness for marriage and for a permanent lifetime commitment.
- For couples whose reasons for seeking marriage are more for the sake of appearance, or to accommodate social or family needs, and little evidence is presented to indicate either spiritual or psychosocial maturity for marriage, a postponement of further marriage preparation, at least at this time, can be considered.
4. Should cohabiting couples be encouraged to separate prior to the wedding?
Many diocesan marriage preparation policies suggest that pastoral ministers encourage cohabiting couples to separate. They recognize that this is a desirable goal to propose and to achieve - not because the Church is so concerned with the fact of separate addresses but because it declares that conjugal love needs to be definitive; "it cannot be an arrangement 'until further notice" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1646).
Even if the couple chooses not to separate, they can be encouraged to live chastely before marriage. "They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2350). The challenge to separate or, if continuing to live together, to live chastely, can be fruitfully posed at the end of a process in which the church's teaching on marriage and sexuality is carefully explained. This approach has been adopted by the bishops of Kansas, among others. They point out that during marriage preparation couples must make decisions. One of these concerns living together. Priests and pastoral ministers point out the many good reasons not to cohabit, and invite couples to follow the teachings of the Church. As the Kansas bishops stress: "Ultimately, the engaged couple must make the decision to follow Christ and His Church." (A Better Way, 1998).
The Diocese of Peoria follows a similar approach. After suitable instruction, "The priest must ask the couple to consider chaste and separate living and give the couple time to reflect on their decision" (Pastoral Care of Sexually Active/Co-Habiting Couples Before Marriage, Appendix E).
Priests and pastoral ministers report that couples who separate often benefit from the experience. "Priests say that many couples return...expressing amazement at new insights through living separately. The couple's experience has changed their hearts" (Sioux Falls). Separation can give the couple new perspectives on their relationship; it is also a tangible sign of the couple's free, loving decision to accept the Church's vision of marriage and sexuality.
Some couples are not normally asked to separate, e.g., those with children. Ideally, before challenging a couple to separate the minister knows their particular circumstances and why they decided to live together. A couple may have what seems to them good reasons (e.g., finances, safety) for living together. A change in living arrangements can pose practical problems. The Diocese of Sioux Falls, recognizing this situation, notes that "Parishes may be challenged to help couples cope with such difficulties so that they can live apart" (Preparing for Marriage in the Diocese of Sioux Falls).
5. If a couple is cohabiting, can marriage be denied or delayed?
A few dioceses point out that cohabitation may prolong the marriage preparation process because of the need to evaluate the couple's attitudes and understanding of the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality. One policy states: "If there is not sufficient awareness on the couple's part of the essential elements of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexual relations and of the commitment, fidelity, and permanence needed in marriage, then the marriage should be postponed until such awareness has developed" (Preparing for Marriage, Diocese of Rapid City). Since couples have a natural and canonical right to marriage, any delay beyond the normal waiting period for all couples is a serious matter. Care must be taken to ensure that delay is not used as a punishment for a couple's continued cohabitation. (See Bishop John D'Arcy's letter to priests of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, "ORIGINS," October 1, 1998.)
- Denial of marriage - Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, 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.
- Delay or postponement of the marriage - Some diocesan policies note that in certain circumstances a postponement of the wedding might be in order. In these cases, additional time might be needed to address the issues raised by cohabitation. For example, a concern for the impact of cohabitation on the couple's freedom to marry could be a reason to delay the marriage until this issue is sufficiently explored as part of marriage preparation (Archdiocese of Detroit; Archdiocese of Miami).
6. Should cohabiting couples be encouraged to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation prior to their wedding?
With all couples, the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is properly encouraged as part of marriage preparation for the Catholic party or parties. The Catechism states: "It is therefore appropriate for the bride and groom to prepare themselves for the celebration of their marriage by receiving the sacrament of penance" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1622). It should be noted that absolute moral rectitude is not demanded for the sacraments to be celebrated. Familiaris Consortio offers this guidance:
The faith of the person asking the church for marriage can exist in different degrees, and it is the primary duty of pastors to bring about a rediscovery of this faith and to nourish it and bring it to maturity. But pastors must also understand the reasons that lead the church also to admit to the celebration of marriage those who are imperfectly disposed (68).
The document further points out that the baptized couple, by their right intention, have already accepted God's plan regarding marriage and, at least implicitly, consent to what the church intends to do when it celebrates marriage. It cautions: "As for wishing to lay down further criteria for admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage, criteria that would concern the level of faith for those to be married, this would above all involve grave risks" (68).
7. Is it possible for cohabitation to scandalize the community?
Many diocesan marriage preparation policies note the possibility of scandal. Scandal is a multi-faceted reality. In society as a whole, cohabitation neither carries the stigma nor causes the scandal that it did just two generations ago. As the bishops of Kansas point out, "As society no longer adheres to traditional moral values and norms, scandal becomes less and less a concern to many people" (A Better Way, 9). The burden of scandal falls not just on the cohabiting couple, but on our sexually permissive society. The cohabiting couple is living contrary to the Church's teaching on marriage and sexual love. By acting as if they are married when they are not, they risk scandalizing the believing community. It is also possible to cause scandal, however, through a lack of understanding and compassion for couples in irregular situations. Whether and how couples are welcomed can mean the difference between alienation from the Church or renewed involvement. Moreover, parents and pastoral ministers may have a different opinion of how scandal occurs. Parents who were deeply distressed by their children's cohabitation are relieved when the son or daughter approaches the Church for marriage. They believe that the scandal is easing. At this point, however, priests and pastoral ministers fear that the scandal is about to start. Both viewpoints have some merit and point to the need for understanding different perspectives on scandal.
8. Is a simple wedding ceremony most appropriate for cohabiting couples?
A few diocesan policies suggest that a simple wedding ceremony is most appropriate for cohabiting couples. (Those policies that explain "simple" usually do so in terms of the number of people in the wedding party.) This is the most common consequence of a failure to separate. One policy states that since the couple is choosing to appear as husband and wife to the community, then their wedding ceremony should reflect this choice and be small and simple. Others (e.g., Memphis) state that a large wedding raises the possibility of serious scandal.
The Code of Canon Law gives no special consideration for marriages of cohabiting couples. The general norm states that the pastor and the ecclesial community are to see that the couple has a "fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage clarifying that the spouses signify and share in the mystery of unity and of fruitful love that exists between Christ and the Church" (c. 1063, 3). The Catechism states: "Since marriage establishes the couple in a public state of life in the Church, it is fitting that its celebration be public, in the framework of a liturgical celebration, before the priest (or a witness authorized by the Church), the witnesses, and the assembly of the faithful" (1663).
Some pastoral ministers are concerned that a simple celebration hinders the couple's ability to understand the communal dimension of the sacrament. They point out that cohabiting couples are the least likely to realize the involvement of the Christian community in their marriage. Having a wedding with only immediate family and witnesses simply underscores their impression that marriage is a private event. They need to appreciate the reciprocal commitment between the couple and the Christian community. The Archdiocese of Omaha points out that even for cohabiting couples the celebration of marriage is an act of the Church's public worship. It states: "The same liturgical principles and norms apply for a cohabiting couple as for any other couple. Marriage preparation for cohabiting couples should not begin with or be based upon a decision about the kind or size of the wedding ceremony that will be allowed."
Since widespread cohabitation is a fairly recent phenomenon, many pastoral ministers are still learning how to address the issue in marriage preparation. The Committee on Marriage and Family hopes that this paper provides helpful guidance, but it acknowledges that more can be done. One challenge is to provide additional formation for those who prepare couples for marriage so that they can more effectively handle the issues raised by cohabitation. Another challenge is learning how to discuss cohabitation in the various settings in which marriage preparation takes place.
Above all, when cohabiting couples approach the church for marriage we encourage pastoral ministers to recognize this as a teachable moment. Here is a unique opportunity to help couples understand the Catholic vision of marriage. Here, too, is an opportunity for evangelization. By supporting the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past, the pastoral minister can draw a couple more deeply into the church community and the practice of their faith. Treated with sensitivity and respect, couples can be helped to understand and live the vocation of Christian marriage.
References for Part One
(The three-starred references are especially recommended since they offer a broad treatment of the topic.)
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- Creighton Center for Marriage and Family, Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting It Right. Omaha, NE, Creighton University, 1995.
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Preparing Cohabiting Couples for Marriage, with Sr. Barbara Markey, Ph.D. Intended for those who prepare couples for marriage, this well-done video provides background information in order to understand persons who cohabit before marriage and the issues and risk factors they face. The video reviews, summarizes, and analyzes current research. A study guide includes an outline, discussion questions, and a bibliography. Available from FOCCUS, 2222 N. 111 St., Omaha, NE 68164. (Phone: 402-551-9003).
"Living Together and Christian Commitment" by Dr. James Healy is an updated and expanded version (1999) of the materials first published by Resources for Christian Living (then Tabor) in 1993. The packet includes an audiotape, a Leader's Guide, and ten copies of the Couple's Guide. The audiotape and the Leader's Guide address both the social science aspects and the pastoral issues involved and are designed for those working with cohabiting couples who wish to marry. The Couple's Guides are designed to be put directly into the hands of cohabiting couples and can be ordered separately. Now published by Rooted in Love and available from the Center for Family Ministry, Diocese of Joliet (815-838-5334).
To assist the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family in developing this paper, diocesan family life offices were asked to provide copies of their marriage preparation policies. Some policies were already on file in the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women, and Youth. A total of 76 policies were reviewed. Since some of these are common policies, covering several dioceses in one state (Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Missouri, and Michigan), a total of 129 dioceses were represented.
Of the 76 policies, 43 address cohabitation. The discussion ranges from a paragraph to several pages. Minimally, the policies identify cohabitation as a "special circumstance" that should be addressed during marriage preparation. Other policies offer extended and explicit guidance to those who are preparing couples for marriage.
The diocesan policies cited in the paper were chosen because, for the most part, they articulate what other policies also say about a particular issue related to cohabitation. They represent a position that is taken by several--in some cases many--dioceses.
Of the policies reviewed, the following address cohabitation:
- Common Diocesan Policies: Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, Wisconsin
- Individual Diocesan Policies: Arlington, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Denver, Dubuque, Fargo, Fort Wayne-South Bend, Galveston-Houston, Gary, Helena, Juneau, Lincoln, Memphis, Miami, New Ulm, Oakland, Omaha, Peoria, Phoenix, Portland (ME), Rapid City, Rockford, Salina, San Angelo, San Diego, San Jose, Scranton, Sioux Falls, Spokane, Springfield (IL), Wilmington, Youngstown
- In 1995 a national study of Catholic-sponsored marriage preparation found that 43.6% of couples were living together at the time of their marriage preparation. The average length of cohabitation had been 15.6 months. See Marriage Preparation in the Catholic Church: Getting It Right. Creighton University Center for Marriage and Family, 1995, p. 43.
- In a report entitled The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America (The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 1999) authors David Popenoe, Ph.D. and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Ph.D. identify the rise in unmarried cohabitation as partly responsible for the 43% decline, from 1960 to 1996, in the annual number of marriages per thousand unmarried women.
- A complete listing of the citations included in this section as well as an expanded bibliography is found in Appendix A.
- For a listing of all the diocesan policies or guidelines consulted in the preparation of this section see Appendix B.