Dear Cohabiting Couples: “Living Together” is Not God's Plan for You!

“Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.” (CCC 2353)

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Christ and the Woman at the Well” — “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:17-18)
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Christ and the Woman at the Well” — “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:17-18) (photo: Public Domain)

But everyone’s doing it!

Indeed, to look around at contemporary society, it does seem that living together without benefit of marriage is just another option for a young couple in love.

  • Perhaps they’re engaged to be married, and it’s cheaper to pay rent for only one apartment.
  • Perhaps they’re not engaged but are simply trying out the relationship — and later, if everything goes well, they’ll consider making more definitive plans for a life together.
  • Perhaps there’s no intent to marry, but the couple have discovered the pleasure of sexuality with one another, and simply want the sexual partner to be close at hand, available on the other side of the bed.

Anyway, it seems that all of society says that it’s no big deal — that unlike in years past, today a woman can talk openly about living with her boyfriend, and no one will question her character. One big reason for the change is contraception: If there’s little chance of an “unplanned pregnancy,” then why not have fun snuggling up together, even if you’re not totally committed to your partner?

In October 2015, the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, popularly referred to as the Synod on the Family, acknowledged that cohabitation is a growing problem. It called on the Church to show mercy and to “support her children on the path of reconciliation,” but it did not change Church teaching.

At the same time Archbishop Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh, Ireland, reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s strong opposition to cohabitation before marriage, explaining that sex must not be treated in such a trivial way. “Just because something (cohabitation) has become more common,” he said,

...and because it may be part of the culture of the day doesn't mean that we have to say that it is something good or morally right.... the Church has a full understanding that sexual expression is within a marriage between a man and a woman.

He added:

I would believe that it is not good that we have become so permissive.... I don't think it is good for young people.

In Northern Ireland, as in the United States, many couples who plan to marry live at the same address prior to the wedding. Often, these couples cite fear of divorce as one reason for their decision to give their relationship a “test drive” before committing to marriage.

But living together doesn’t prevent divorce. In fact, statistics on divorce and living together before marriage would seem to suggest that the opposite is true. The website LoveToKnow reports that according to statistics gathered by US Attorney Legal Services,

living together before getting married doesn’t accomplish the goal that couples think that it will. A couple who does not live together prior to getting married has a 20 percent chance of being divorced within five years. If the couple has lived together beforehand, that number jumps to 49 percent.

If the couple chooses to live together as an alternative to being married at all, the likelihood that the relationship will break up within five years is 49 percent. At the 10-year mark, a married couple has a 33 percent chance of breaking up. For the unmarried couple who is living together, the likelihood of a breakup is a whopping 62 percent.

Here in the United States, the bishops of Pennsylvania issued a statement in 1999 on cohabitation and the Church’s teaching. Their clear teaching addressed many of the common questions couples have, including:

  • We have good reasons for living together before marriage. Why can’t the Church just accept that?
  • Why does the Church interfere in the sex lives of couples? It’s really just a private matter between us.
  • But really, how does what we do with our own bodies affect our relationship with each other and our spiritual relationship with God?
  • Why can’t I just follow my conscience if I believe living together is okay?
  • Why does the Church claim that living together is a scandal to others?

The statement begins with a “letter to an engaged couple”:

Dear Engaged Couple:

We congratulate you on your engagement and want to offer a word of encouragement to you during this special period of preparation for marriage.

While there are many issues which you will discuss over the course of your preparation period, one important area in which many priests and couples have shared their concerns with us is that of engaged couples living together before marriage. While many in our society may see no problem with this arrangement, living together and having sexual relations before marriage can never be reconciled with what God expects of us.

In addition, countless studies have shown that couples who live together before marriage have higher rates of divorce and a poorer quality of marital relationship than those who do not.

Your engagement is meant to be a time of grace and growth in preparing for your marriage. In the months ahead, we urge all engaged couples who are living together to separate. All Catholics should seek to be reconciled with God and the Church by going to confession and by going to Mass and Holy Communion regularly.

Living chastely during your remaining months of engagement will teach you many things about one another. It will help you to grow in the virtues of generous love, sacrificial giving, self-restraint and good communication – virtues which are essential for a good and lasting marriage.

We pray that as you seek God and his way more deeply, you will be rewarded with an abundance of his grace. May your love for each other always be strong and life-giving.

With every prayerful best wish, we remain,
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Bishops of Pennsylvania
September 1999.

You can read the rest of their statement here.