Dating, Si; Cohabiting, No?


Yesterday, I was impressed to see so many readers celebrating the royal wedding as a validation of marriage. At First Things, Meghan Duke takes a slightly different approach: she sees it as a rebuke to the practice of permanent cohabitation:

“It’s probably best that they live together before making a commitment,” one random fellow interviewed by the AP opined. According to anonymous “Royal commentators,” cohabiting on and off with his girlfriend has put Prince William “in a better position than his father to make his marriage work.”

It’s easy to see the argument: This is a practice run and everyone knows that practice makes perfect. It’s a time to figure out finances and who will do the dishes four days a week, to learn conflict negotiation and perhaps even get a jump start on parenting. According to the National Marriage Project’s 2010 State of Our Unions report, a rapidly increasing number of couples take this approach. Today, more than 60 percent of first marriages are now preceded by a period of cohabitation.

The trouble is, cohabitation isn’t really practice for marriage. As any athlete can tell you: As much as you train, it never completely prepares you for the race. You’ll never perfectly simulate in practice the nerves and adrenaline that kick in at the starting block. The race and practice are simply not the same experience, and neither are settling down and what used to be called shacking up.

As Dietrich von Hildebrand recognized in The Nature of Love, the value of personal love is not simply determined by the objective value of the beloved, but by the contribution of self the lover is willing to make to the beloved, how far he “is willing to go to fulfill the demands of a particular situation. The point at which a person says, ‘it is impossible,’ and at which the obstacles seem insurmountable to him so that he feels excused in his conscience is reached sooner by some and later by others.”

Without meaning to, Hildebrand makes a case — maybe not a good case, but a case — for cohabitation. Let’s agree that marriage is a permanent committment. Let’s also agree that some matches really are impossible — this is why people don’t choose spouses at random from the telephone directory. Who wants to live with a drunk, a nag, a sulk, a spendthrift, a Nintendo addict? During a courtship, canny lovers can conceal these deal-breakers — at least to a point. Living together, sharing a bathroom, it becomes impossible. Cohabiting, then, makes less sense as a form of practice than as a trial run. Playing house, as Duke calls it, might not tell you if the match is tenable, but it can at least provide some clues as to whether it’s untenable.

That’s my logic, anyway. Its strength is hard to test; as far as I know, no one’s compiled data on bad marriages avoided. The very idea sounds strange – kind of like Dan Quayle did when he said, “I demand credit for the things I did not do.” Duke reports that statistics suggest cohabiting does little good in those instances when the other partner does turn out to be a keeper:

At best, the State of Our Unions report suggests, the jury’s still out. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that cohabitation among engaged couples did not adversely effect marriages, couples who cohabitated before engagement were more likely to report lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce than those who lived together only after engagement or marriage. “What can be said for certain,” the report concludes, “is that no research from the United States has yet been found that those who cohabit before marriage have stronger marriages than those who do not.”

I haven’t read the study, so I don’t know whether it’s longitudinal in nature. If it represents no more than a snapshot of a particular point in these couples’ lives together, I’m disinclined to give it too much weight. The couples who cohabited would have gotten more used to one another — to playing house and its charms — than the ones who didn’t. Exhaustion — buyer’s remorse, the seven-year-itch, ennui, Weltschmerz, ἀκηδία, and every other shade of discontent so delicate that only Europeans have a name for it — would naturally set in earlier. Give the non-cohabiters a few years; they’ll catch right up.

By now, readers must have guessed that I have a certain soft spot for cohabitation, despite the Church’s prohibitions. I have to admit that I do, and for a very unscientific reason. The most stable, mutually supportive relationship I’ve ever been privileged to observe is the one between my mother and her boyfriend. They’ve been living together since 1994 and have no plans to marry. Without ever having quizzed them on why not, I doubt I’ll do them any injustice by guessing they’re afraid that formalizing their commitment will. cause it, somehow, to sour. “The piece of paper changes everything” — everyone’s heard that before. If, at its worst, it sounds superstitious, it may express, at its best, genuine self-knowledge.

But here’s what makes them exceptional: they dated for ten solid years before sharing a living space. Neither one was in any hurry to surrender her autonomy. At the very least, each could be sure that the other was not a clinger or a sponger. Maybe that’s the missing piece to the puzzle — if people can live apart, they can live together.

Elizabeth tells me I must sign my name, so I remain, & C., Yr. most humble, obedient servant,

Max Lindenman, Deputy Anchoress

About Patheos Daily Reflections
  • Ramblin’ Jan

    Max – the problem of trying to equate cohabitation with buying a car or a house is that the latter are not sacred acts, and they are not designed to protect women.

    Marriage protects women when they are most vulnerable, providing physical and financial security when they are utterly helpless during childbirth and in the time before and after confinement.

    Since women have decided to leave the home and join the workforce, they’ve given up being protected by default — many don’t need or want to be supported, choosing instead to be independent, even in marriage. Many of the younger women I know, in fact, are not only mothers but the primary wage-earner in the family.

    Men are bigger and stronger than women- it makes sense that they should be the providers and protectors. Take away a man’s sense of his ‘maleness’ and pretty soon you have either an emasculated man or a big baby that’s bigger and stronger and dangerously close to being uncivilized.

    As in your previous post, it’s not so much a question of whether cohabitation is right or a denial of the fact that some are wildly successful. It’s a matter of is it the right thing to do?

    In general, and with very few exceptions – probably not.

  • Dan


    Despite the studies and stats that those of a test run attitude ultimately avail themselves of a trade-in option.

    Simply as a matter of practicality, cohabitation isn’t the course to pursue.

  • JB

    Please consider that cohabitation is, at best, a cause of scandal; at least, an occasion of mortal sin; at worst, a persistent state of mortal sin barring the participants from Holy Communion and disinclining them from the confessional.

    The Church can conclusively rule against cohabitation without statistical studies, just from the facts of the matter.

  • Kristen

    No wonder the saints annoy you so much. I could get advice to commit mortal sin from a lot of other websites. That’s not why I visit The Anchoress. I’ll come back when she’s back.

  • Dave

    With reference to our favorite saints–did any saint ever write like this about fornication? See Hebrews 13:4, for an example of what St. Paul had to say.

    Honor your mother, and place a veil over this.

  • jeff

    I notice that you called marriage “a piece of paper”. That worries me.

  • Annie

    If they are living together, one presumes that the couple is also having sex… unless they are Amish!
    It is unfortunate that the general assumption is that abstinence before marriage is not possible in this era. I submit that my marriage is healthier for having waited. It encouraged us to develop other ways of communicating our love and affection, which became lifelong skills. And although it wasn’t always easy, there was a tremendous freedom in removing the pressures that go along with responsible sex…and it made those early years of marriage so much fun!

  • Susan Lee

    In the late 60′s, my husband & I lived together for about 4 years before we married. The greatest difference I found between cohabitation & marriage is – other people’s responses to us, which changed our responses to each other.

    No one took us seriously as a couple while we were living together. However, as soon as we married, we suddenly took on a new status in OTHER people’s eyes – which literally changed our relationship in OUR eyes. We genuinely became what we (newly) were – Married.

    Our committment to each other upon marriage became one which was supported by all civilization…

    Susan Lee

  • AB

    I find this piece shameful. Premarital sex is a Sin, and cohabitation all but ensures it.

    As a Protestant considering the switch to Catholicism, this post enflames my worries about the catholic church: detached from true conviction; arrogant in the face of the Lord (due to the primacy of sacraments?); and mentally on vacation.

    The real anchoress needs to stop cohabitating with this writer. This is a foolish comment, leading others astray, and this post is egregiously evil.

  • Maureen

    One suspects that your mother is doing something more along the lines of “common law marriage” than “I’m not really serious enough to love you without a money-back shacking-up guarantee”. You get a few people like that, mostly older folks. Similarly, you get a few people who really have a time limit, and then get married right on schedule. Some people eventually realize it’s stupid not to get married after all this time.

    But in general, it’s a case where the woman is afraid to ask for a ring first, because she’s pretty sure he’ll say no, and she’s afraid to say no to sex and living together, because she’s pretty sure he’ll leave her; and she keeps trying to please him so he’ll stay, which he does as long as she grovels sufficiently. Sometimes it’s vice versa, usually with kids as leverage. Eventually it breaks up.

  • Jan

    Anyone see the comment I left lying around here earlier?

    Have I been spammed? :’(

  • John Thayer Jensen

    Max – the flaw, it seems to me, in your reasoning is that marriage isn’t just about the couple. It is about society as a whole. We were once in a situation in which cohabitation made a statement. Now it is becoming increasingly “whatever!” This means, I think, that we are saying that it is no one’s business but ours – and if we don’t choose to make a commitment – even recognising that not every commitment will be kept – it is our business.

    It is not. It is everyone’s business – and particularly that of the children.


  • Peggy Bowes

    Shame on you for posting this tribute to “shacking up.” I can’t imagine the Anchoress would endorse such a view. How would you feel if your mother conceived a child? God opens a womb when He chooses, even post-menopause, as shown by Sarah in the Old Testament and Elizabeth in the New. The purpose of marriage, in the eyes of the Church with which you disagree, is to create life. It’s not to enjoy uncommitted cohabitation in the twilight years, or at any time for that matter. I pray that you and your mother will have a change of heart and mind.

  • Peggy Bowes

    P.S. For a true Catholic take on this issue, framed in the context of Will and Kate, read this excellent article by Jenn Giroux. “Cohabitation, a Royal Mistake”

  • Hallie Lord

    I have to agree with Peggy.

    Not only is the flagrant disobedience to Church teaching unfortunate, the timing is in very poor taste. During this beautiful weekend of beatification and Divine Mercy I would have hoped you might find something a bit more unifying and/or uplifting to discuss.

  • Sarah

    Giving scandal aside, I do think conversations about the reality of cohabitation are very necessary for Catholics today. I’m 26 and “shacking up” is pretty much the norm among my peers. Max is right, it’s usually more about saving on rent than “getting the milk for free.” It’s assumed that dating couples are already sleeping together, moving in is more about practicality. I have seen many loving, respectful cohabitating relationships – these couples just need to learn that marriage can be something even better.

    If we want to promote Christian marriage, we need to address the very real fears young people have in our divorce-ridden society. They think cohabitating is essential lest you marry and then learn you are “incompatible”, sexually or otherwise. People need to learn how to determine compatibility while chastely dating, and to be reassured that sacramental grace will help them make such a big commitment as marriage.

  • Lauretta

    Marriage isn’t just about the couple or about society, it is about God. Our relationship as husband and wife is to be a reflection of our relationship with God. We are to be manifesting the total, permanent, gift of self that is the Trinity. Co-habitation cannot manifest that relationship, that covenant, in the same way that making a permanent commitment before God and man does in marriage.

  • Barbara


    I’m actually glad you brought this topic up. I have a parent in the same situation and while I am fully in agreement with the Church’s teaching, I also have to admit that my parent’s relationship is probably one of the most stable that person has ever had, not excluding that person’s marriage. I think righteously indignant responses aren’t very helpful. There are teachings in the Catholic church that many of us non-saints struggle with, that seem to fly in the face of what human experience tells us. I applaud you for expressing your opinion honestly, in spite of being met with a rousing chorus of “Stone him!” from the other commenters. Good luck with your struggle, may God illuminate your mind and heart and show you how to speak the truth in love.

  • craig

    Ramblin’ Jan’s comment inadvertently touched a key issue. She framed it as marriage protecting women, which is true under our legal system and sensible in the traditional scheme of things. The problem is that the legal system’s treatment of men and women in this one area assumes the traditional nature of male/female relations, while every other aspect of law and society assumes that men and women are completely interchangeable.

    Today, marriage leaves men utterly defenseless against women who dissolve the marriage by choice and nonetheless enjoy their traditional support. Blame no-fault divorce, but also blame the culture’s disdain for defending man’s role as provider and protector. Too often in our legal system, it appears that women have only rights while men have only duties. If a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, as the saying goes, then she shouldn’t be able to garnish his income post-marriage.

    If a man and a women do not both subscribe to the Church’s sacramental understanding of marriage (lifelong, open to children, and supporting the other as one’s vocation to God) then I’m hard-pressed to say why a man ought to get married at all — the downside risk is terrible, and what’s in it for him? I’m not suggesting that Catholics should (further) conform to society, but that the new societal rules warrant careful consideration by Catholics on how to re-teach the sacramental reality and how to recover what wisdom has been willingly cast aside for political correctness.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Ok Max. You have a soft spot for co-habitation. Now tell me, does God have a soft spot for it, or are we no longer concerned with him?

    God’s will seems totally cast aside. It’s almost as if God wasn’t real. He’s our idol, and we can make him like whatever we like and hate whatever we hate. If we think we are happy, of course he approves! How can he hate what we love?

    How can he be smarter than us?

  • Klaire

    Max how disappointing that you would use the Anchoress’ blog to promote heresy/moral relativism. That said, your example is the epitome of why scandal is so dangerous, as how could a loving son NOT defend his mamma?

    In doing so, you debase a respected Catholic blog, and of course, the teachings of Christ.

    Real love is the courage to speak truth, regardless of how much it hurts. Objectively, your mother’s soul is in great danger, and that should be the only thing that matters. Perhaps they are living as “simply friends”, but even if, it’s still scandal. Whatever it is, it’s a lie, and there is NO justification for it.

    I will keep you all in my prayers.

  • Theca

    Oh dear. I find this troubling. But some good comments being made.

    One thing I have seen lately is how many people, especially older ones who are widows/widowers, “can’t afford” to get married. If they lose the benefits they receive from the previous dead spouse then the income or the insurance benefits for the surviving spouse will go too low for them to survive and so they must live together unmarried. I hear a lot of these sob stories and my heart goes out to them but I can’t help but think there’s got to be some better solutions out there then shacking up to save money.

  • Paul

    I’m an under 30 catholic and I am not especially scandalized by cohabitation. Marriage has become a bit of a joke within our culture. What distances us from God? The lack of formal marriage? The lack of committed relationships? The lack of openness to life? My guess is the formal marriage is thirds on that list.

    If you are a Christian, you should want to make a commitment to the other person before God. The sad reality is that divorce, betrayal and basic fear is a barrier to marriage. We have a vocation crisis when it comes to marriage which is similar to the vocation crisis surrounding religious life. There are plenty of reasonably successful late 20′s or early 30′s who have succeed at education and perhaps career, but don’t have life direction beyond that. Building career is hard on relationships, I’ve had three good ones which were casualties of career. Without a sense of vocation, any marriage is difficult.

    I see no reason to tell my non-religious friends to go before a judge and formalize their relationship. They’ll give anyone a certificate, so why bother if you don’t want the legal rights/responsibilities. In my experience working with RCIA, pre-existing divorces are keeping people out of the Church. For those within the Church, don’t live together. You’ll get to know each other just fine in marriage prep and you’ll have a sacramental marriage.

    I have good friends who are minimally religious and live together. The guy told me “it is obvious to me that we aren’t just dating”. They are treated like couple by all their peers. He respects her greatly and she respects him. I occasionally prod him to get engaged, but in everyone’s mind they are already married. The bigger separation from God is the minimally religious thing, not “living in sin”. Perhaps once they have an active relationship with Christ, they will want to commit their relationship to him.

    For all the “heresy” comments directed at Max. If marriage is fundamentally a product of natural law, it is difficult to argue that modern government marriage is within the tradition of that natural law. Women are fairly independent and contraceptives are widely available. Cohabitation is a natural end to the contraceptive culture. No one should attack Max for observing the obvious: cohabitation doesn’t mean that much in modern culture and many of our non-catholic friends do it seemingly lovingly. Beyond the natural law, it is within the Covenant where marriage is sacred. As discussed in the Council of Jerusalem, this is part of the old law which carried over. Now if the Church would start to actively teach marriage and vocation to people my age.

  • Therese

    While I would much prefer that those in love get married, I wonder if some of today’s cohabiting couples are in fact in a form of marriage, like a medieval hand-fast. Among some couples, there seems to be an actual committment to each other.

  • Lauretta

    Therese, John Paul II addressed that issue in, I believe, the apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. Here is a short quote:

    The Church, for her part, cannot admit such a kind of union, for further and original reasons which derive from faith. For, in the first place, the gift of the body in the sexual relationship is a real symbol of the giving of the whole person: such a giving, moreover, in the present state of things cannot take place with full truth without the concourse of the love of charity, given by Christ. In the second place, marriage between two baptized persons is a real symbol of the union of Christ and the Church, which is not a temporary or “trial” union but one which is eternally faithful. Therefore between two baptized persons there can exist only an indissoluble marriage.

  • Amy

    Often ignored in the whole discussion about cohabitation is the damage it does to children involved. A new study shows that children are significantly more likely to suffer abuse and/or neglect in cohabitating homes than homes with married parents (11 times with a non-related live-in, 4 times with cohabitating parents). Earlier studies show that they are more likely to be killed by abuse (45 times), more likely to have emotional and social difficulties, and more likely to be involved in criminal activity. They are also less likely to develop healthy, long-term relationships as adults.

    The adults’ desire for sexual gratification cannot and should not trump the health and wellbeing of the children.