A Deeper Look at Cohabitation, and How the Catholic Church Can Respond

A Deeper Look at Cohabitation, and How the Catholic Church Can Respond November 12, 2019
Image via iStock

Hi everybody. This is my first blog for Patheos, and today I’ll be writing a little bit more about a recent Pew Research Center survey on cohabitation that I wrote about this week for Our Sunday Visitor.

In short, the survey documents what we all pretty much know already: most young adults in the United States have cohabitated at one point in their lives, and most Americans – including 74 percent of Catholics – see no problem with that. Any stigma that “shacking up” once had is pretty much gone.

So, what does that mean for the Church and its marriage prep programs? Several people involved in marriage preparation ministry told me similar things: a healthy marriage needs to be modeled at home from a young age; we can’t judge or lecture cohabitating couples who approach the Church for marriage; most couples have no idea what the Church’s teachings are on chastity and marriage; the best way to “break through” is to befriend a cohabitating couple, meeting them where they are on their life-spiritual journey and accompanying them on a path that will hopefully lead to them fully embracing the Church’s teachings.

As someone who cohabitated when I was a young adult – for the other person’s privacy, I’ll just leave it at that – I can relate to some of those points, which I will get to later on this blog. But for now, I want to try to unpack a little bit more of this topic. I’ll share some things that the Pew survey touched on and that the marriage preparation ministers told me. I didn’t have room to include all that information in the OSV article.

First, I find it interesting that 53 percent of the people who responded to the Pew survey still see marriage as a social good, and that they believe society benefits when people who want to stay together long-term eventually get married. That at least shows, in my opinion, that we have not lost the collective instinct that healthy marriages are foundational for a healthy society.

Also, I think it’s telling that the survey mentioned that married adults are considerably more likely to trust their spouse than a cohabitating person. That is not necessarily a negative reflection on a cohabitating person’s character – married people often lie and violate their spouse’s trust – but it does show, as one person told me, that with a higher level of commitment, comes a higher level of trust.

We can’t demonize cohabitating couples, especially since there are so many reasons why they move in together. Chief among them, according to the survey, are the high rents and living expenses that come with living in a city. Almost 40 percent of respondents cited finances as a major reason for moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“I have some sympathy for that. I mean in San Francisco, housing is so expensive and most young people live in the city and it’s very expensive to be paying a school note, a car note and rent,” said Mary-Rose Verret of Witness to Love, a marriage preparation and renewal ministry.

Most people see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, but there are couples who hesitate taking that final leap, and the most common reasons given include financial readiness and where they are in their job or career.

Those involved in Catholic marriage ministry need to take all those factors and more into consideration. Wagging a finger and lecturing on mortal sin may work for a small handful of people, but that approach will turn off most couples and will just further alienate them from the Church.

Ryan Verret – Mary-Rose’s husband – told me a story of a mentor couple who was helping to prepare a young cohabitating engaged couple for marriage. Two months before the wedding, the mentors challenged the couple to abstain from sex  until the wedding day. The mentors even committed to abstain themselves as a sacrifice for the couple. That selfless act really touched the engaged woman, who became teary-eyed and said that she had never had someone love her in that way before. The woman ended up moving in with the mentor couple for those two months.

As to how we got to a place in the culture where cohabitation has become so normalized, that would probably be enough for a book. Jason Evert, the Catholic chastity speaker, believes it comes down to contraception, which he described as “the fuel for the Sexual Revolution.” He argues that has led to the casual sexual mores that in turn have created a generation of young people who don’t understand love and relationships.

“We have a culture where everybody knows what they’re not supposed to do in dating and relationships, but they don’t really have a clue as to what they are supposed to do,” Evert said. “We have a culture of single people who pretend that they’re dating. We have a culture of dating people who behave like they’re married, and we’re stuck with a culture of married people who seem to think they’re single.

“Everything is out of order, and the young people know it,” Evert said.

Whether you agree with him or not, it’s undeniable that the culture has changed. Christian Meert, the cofounder of CatholicMarriagePrep.com, which offers online Catholic marriage preparation classes for Agape Catholic Ministries, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of couples in his marriage prep program are cohabitating, and that maybe only ten percent are abstinent.

“But when they go through the teachings of the Church, when they understand it and everything, 76 percent of the couples sign a pledge card at the end that they will help each other to remain abstinent,” Meert said.

As for myself, I will add that I didn’t really know the Church’s teachings when I cohabitated. I was a poorly-catechized, lax Catholic at best, occasionally going to Mass, with a faint idea that I was “living in sin” as that old formulation goes. But I was clueless about the what’s and why’s of Church teachings. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was at a point in my life that I decided I needed God, that my thinking began to change. Prior to that, I had never heard of Humanae Vitae, and if you asked me what the Theology of the Body was, I would have met you with a blank stare.

So it really spoke to me on a deep spiritual level when Peg Hensler, associate director of Marriage Ministries and natural family planning for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, mentioned the parable of the lost sheep in the context of preparing cohabitating couples for marriage.

“In the art of accompaniment, we have to stop being judgmental,” Hensler said. “The cohabitating couples don’t want to be judged and stereotyped… What we’re finding is that a lot of lay people don’t start out as tremendously faithful people. Then, through the Holy Spirit they have a conversion experience. And when those graces start to flow, you find these people who really are on fire. They’re out there, and that’s exciting.”

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  • Luis Gutierrez

    The best response to the cohabitation epidemic would be to recognize that the great mystery of Christ and the Church is more than just a patriarchal covenant. Then we can understand that a nuptial covenant is a communion of persons, not just a conjugal union between a patriarch and his wife. In the Catholic Church, we now need celibate women in the priesthood and the episcopate. Then people will figure out more clearly what they already know intuitively, i.e., that the patriarchal phase of human history is passing away, religious patriarchy is becoming obsolete, and Humanae Vitae (and the Theology of the Body) are the blueprint for nuptial relations in a post-patriarchal civilization.

  • Ruth Curcuru

    I think the church needs to take its share of the blame too. It its desire to prevent couples from entering hastily into bad marriages, it divorced children and marriage almost as effectively as contraception had divorced sex and children. While once upon a time a pregnancy was a reason to get married, and the sooner the better, church marriage prep programs trying to keep people from invalid marriages said “no, don’t hurry to the altar. Have the baby first, then, if you still want to get married, we’ll consider it”. While my mother (born in 1930) told me that in her day the church considered engagement to be a “near occassion of sin” and wanted couples to get married quickly once they made the decison to do so (so that sex would no longer be a mortal sin), now dioceses require engagement periods of six months to a year–and this is for couples who, in general are older and more established than their parents or grandparents were when they got engaged.