It’s no secret that many couples are cohabiting, that is, living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Currently, 60% of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation, but fewer than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage.
Many couples believe-mistakenly-that cohabitation will lower their risk of divorce. This is an understandable misconception, since many people are the children of divorce, or have other family members or friends who have divorced. Other reasons for living together include convenience, financial savings, companionship and security, and a desire to move out of their parents’ house.
What social science says about cohabitation
- On average, marriage preceded by cohabitation is 46% more likely to end in divorce.
- The risk is greatest for “serial” cohabitors who have had multiple relationships.
- Some studies indicate that those who live together with definite plans for marriage are at minimal risk; however, there are no positive effects from cohabiting.
- Cohabitation puts children at risk. Forty percent of cohabiting households include children. After five years, one-half of these couples will have broken up, compared to 15% of married parents.
Cohabitation and Catholic Church teaching
Every act of sexual intercourse is intended by God to express love, commitment, and openness to life in the total gift of the spouses to each other. Sexual intercourse outside of marriage cannot express what God intended. Rather, it says something false–a total commitment that the couple does not yet have. This total commitment is possible only in marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that some couples claim a right to live together if they intend to marry later on. Although the couple may be sincere in their intention, the Catechism stresses that human love is not compatible with “trial marriages.” Rather, “it demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another.”
Cohabitation and marriage preparation
If you are a cohabiting couple who has chosen to marry, the Catholic Church welcomes your decision to marry. Because cohabitation can have an effect on the marriage, couples are encouraged to explore certain questions with the pastoral minister who is preparing them for marriage. These include:
- Why did you choose to live together?
- What did you learn from the experience of living together?
- Why did you decide to marry?
- Why do you wish to marry in the Catholic Church?
- What does marriage as a sacrament mean to you?
Pastoral ministers may encourage cohabiting couples without children to separate for a period before marriage as a sign of their free, loving decision to follow the Church’s vision of marriage and sexuality. Couples are also encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
People have a right to marry; therefore, cohabiting couples cannot be denied marriage in the Catholic Church solely because they are cohabiting. However, cohabitation may raise questions, for example, about the couple’s freedom to marry, which need to be explored.
For more information:
Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples, an Information Report from the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family