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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
March 1, 2002 Issue

A good start to healthy marriage

Cohabitation doesn't fit the bill, for a number of 'healthy couple' reasons

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

By Bishop Robert Banks

Since February was National Marriage Month, I thought it might be helpful to talk about what many of our young people consider to be a good start for a healthy marriage: cohabitation.

Formal and informal surveys, plus the personal experience of the average priest, would indicate that many if not most of the couples who ask to be married in the church are already living together. That was my own experience as parish priest 20 years ago, but it was not my experience as a young priest back in the 1950s.

I don't pretend to be an expert on the reasons why there has been an explosion in the rate of cohabitation. However, I have listened as couples preparing for marriage explain their reasons for living together. The reasons have run from putting aside money for the reception to saving on rent.

Idea of what's permissible

One of the principal underlying reasons has to be the sexual revolution of the 60s. Young Americans, including Catholics, just have different ideas about what is permissible when they love one another or are friends with one another or simply want to have a good time.

Another major reason is that couples who love one another want their marriage to be a success. Frightened by today's high rate of divorce, they figure that living together will give them a better idea of whether they can make a marriage work.

However, it is apparent that cohabitation doesn't have that effect. The divorce rate has not changed that much, despite the fact that so many couples are living together before marriage.

In fact, some sociologists say that the divorce rate is worse for those who have lived together before marriage. According to one survey, couples who live together before marriage actually have a 50% greater chance of divorce than those who don't. And about 60% of couples who cohabit break up without marrying. It seems that the bad news about cohabitation applies especially when a couple does not intend to get married at any time in the future or is very uncertain about a future marriage.

Why Confession?

From my limited experience in dealing with Catholic couples who come to be married while already living together, they see nothing wrong with what they are doing, though they might be a little sheepish about admitting it to a priest. When I have suggested to them that Confession might be in order before the wedding, their response to me, more than once, was, "Why?"

In these situations, the priest has a problem. How does he build a positive relationship with the couple, while at the same time making it clear that their present relationship is not in accord with the Gospel?

I recall one case in which I probably paid too much attention to the fact that the couple had been living together for a considerable period of time. After the first interview, I received a call from the man's mother. "We have been trying to get them married for three years" she said. "Don't spoil it."

While I believe a priest must be clear in conveying the Church's teaching on living together before marriage, it is at least equally important that we show we are interested in helping the couple have a happy and successful marriage. When we sense that the couple have a healthy relationship and are intent on a good marriage, the Church's interest is in supporting the marriage and inviting the couple to see how faith -- including Confession -- can play an important role in starting their life together on the right foot.

Cohabitation presents the Church -- and society -- with an even more serious problem when the couple involved in the relationship has little or no intention to marry in the future.

One researcher has reported that "women in cohabiting unions are more than twice as likely to be the victims of domestic violence than married women." Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a marriage and family couselor, writes that data from the National Institute of Mental Health show that cohabiting women have rates of depression more than three times higher than married women -- and more than twice as high as other unmarried women.

Poverty for women, kids

And for those women who have children in such relationships, half will end up as single unmarried women, most of them by the time their child is five years old. That means poverty for the child and the mother in all too many cases. It is no wonder that many legislators now see the promotion of marriage as an important way to reduce child poverty and the number of persons on welfare.

Interestingly, some of the research shows that two-thirds of low-income couples living together without the benefit of marriage do intend to get married when the woman becomes pregnant, yet many, if not most, do not if a pregnancy results. It is suggested that part of the reason they do not get married is today's widespread acceptance of cohabitation.

But is there really any connection or relationship between the cohabitation of a young couple who are engaged and planning to marry within a few months and the cohabitation of the couple who have no commitment about the future, even if a child comes along? Yes, both contribute to a social climate that downplays the importance of marriage for a healthy society and a Christian way of life.

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