Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Should We Cohabitate Before Marriage?

Often when I have questioned the prudence of young people considering cohabitation before marriage, I am met with the quizzical look and the “now” remark: “C’mon, Father, get real.” I am told that living together before marriage is a good way for couples “to find out whether they really get along.” I am reminded of the high cost of living and how two can live more cheaply than one and that everyone is doing it. Marriage is just a piece of paper, anyway. What’s the difference? Besides, it’s good preparation for marriage. And all the facile, mindless bromides and rationalizations that pass as “street smarts.” This is popular “thinking” as evidenced, for example, in a National survey of high school seniors which found nearly 60% approving this trend. In fact, a new report shows that half of all first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation.

The Catholic Church, however, has traditionally insisted that marriage is a “holiness producing institution”, a sacrament, and that the sexual component is truly holy but strictly reserved for a man and a woman in this specific state of marriage. Cohabitation is, in this view, inappropriate (or more bluntly, sinful, as is any use of sex outside of marriage). Obviously, such a stance in this era is counter-cultural, almost radical. Of course, some young Catholic couples disobey their Church and do cohabit before marriage and sometimes even substitute such a relationship for marriage. They join the 4 million unmarried couples now living together (compared with less than half a million 40 years ago.) Clearly, they act counter to Catholic teaching.

But it is heartening to read of the monumental study out of Rutgers University (Feb. ’06) which challenges the popular thinking by publishing the opposite viewpoint. This study runs utterly opposite to the cheerful illusion that it doesn’t really matter whether or not couples cohabit before marriage. I have heard some uninformed Catholic priests make such observations (perhaps I should say non-confrontational or peace at any price priests). But this professional challenge is based on sociological and psychological grounds, not on religious ones. Somehow, the voices of the secular are heard long before the Clarity of God’s will.

It is entitled “Should we live together before marriage? What young adults need to know about cohabitation before marriage.”[1] As part of the New Jersey schools’ National Marriage Project, researchers David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead conclude that “cohabitation does not reduce the likelihood of eventual divorce; it fact it may lead to a higher divorce rate.”

Their major findings include the following:

1. Living together before marriage increases the risk of breaking up after marriage.
2. Unmarried couples have lower levels of happiness and well being than married couples.
3. Living together outside of marriage increases the risk of domestic violence and the risk of physical and sexual abuse for children.

While these findings are factual, the reasons for their reality are not clear. What underlies the findings? Why is this so? The authors state: “Although cohabiting relationships are like marriages------they typically differ in the levels of commitment and autonomy involved.” The results obviously did surprise many people but the report stated: “Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the striking statistical association between cohabitation and divorce is that the people willing to cohabit are more unconventional than others and less committed to the institution of marriage.” Professionally, I can recall from my many marital counseling cases how often the roles of commitment and autonomy formed the fundamental core of interpersonal discord. But how much more so must it be with cohabitating couples who have anemic commitment and infantile notions of autonomy?

I submit the glaring case of two Catholics living together for a year with huge interpersonal problems. She, with a fancy Catholic college background and desperately wanting marriage, he, an inactive lawyer with a comfortable trust fund on which to live, with an obsession for roller skating, expensive restaurants and no interest in marrying. They had low commitment and high self-centered autonomy. When they consulted me for some kind of mediation, he blatantly stated to her: “I have no responsibility to you. I owe you nothing…” This after a full year of living together with required sexual intimacy. With an infantile idée fixe, he insisted that sex was better without marriage. Marriage, with all its added responsibilities, would only spoil the pleasure. He asks: Why rock the boat? Does it take a Henry Kissinger I.Q. level to predict the future of this “relationship”?

The shrill ever present modern battle cry “I have a right to happiness” rings hollow here. Their “happiness” level was abysmal even as their grim sexual life was rapidly becoming jaded.

Apparently, the pattern of low commitment and high autonomy is hard to unlearn. Popenoe and Whitehead, along with other researchers found that the cohabitation attitude which is pervasively operational in these couplings, changes people’s view of marriage itself. The study suggests that cohabitation moves people either to make marriage less likely or if marriage takes place to make it less successful.

That specter lurking in the background of cohabitating life is always whispering sotto voce the “anytime breakup” possibility. With no strings attached either partner can pack up and steal away into the sunset seeking the elusive “Mr./Ms Right”. Should this occur, the battering and bruising of the psyche (especially of a woman) can be incalculable. Obviously, there are no real assurances in cohabitation where commitment is so essentially tenuous. This is particularly problematic in the case of the “serial” cohabitor. The authors have concluded “the experience of dissolving one cohabitation for another generates a greater willingness to dissolve later relationships…” - hence, less real commitment and greater risk for a future marriage.

It is stated that the study may hold the answer to the question why pre-marital cohabitation should affect the stability of a later marriage. Despite its intrinsic narcissism, the “I owe you nothing” message is the warp and woof of cohabitation. When the young guy says to me “Get real, Father” how can I help him see the reality of the dangers of cohabitation? I’m sure no one is totally immune from his environment so how could this underlying sense of instability not influence a cohabitating relationship?

The “elephant in the living room” of this problem is assiduously avoided by those who beat the politically correct drum. The “elephant” is the low level of happiness of the cohabitors! This study courageously faces what happens within the relationship itself. Get this surprising finding! “Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and sexual satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents.” It is also noted that within two years, about half of all cohabiting relationships are terminated. It is either complete breakup or marriage. And after five years, only about 10% of couples are still cohabiting.[2]

It is noted that the annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times that of married couples. Further, women in these relationships are more likely than married women to suffer physical and sexual abuse. These statistics indicate that aggression is at least twice as high among cohabitors as it is among married people.

A Great Britain study (quoted by the authors) found that “compared to children living with married biological parents, children living with cohabiting but unmarried biological parents are 20 times more likely to be subject to child abuse, and those living with a mother and a cohabiting boy friend who is not the father face an increased risk of 33 times. In contrast, the rate of abuse is 14 times higher if the child lives with a biological mother who lives alone…”

Those who are concerned about the welfare of children might well ponder the concluding statement: “….the evidence suggests that the most unsafe of all family environments of children is that in which the mother is living with someone other than the child’s biological father. This is the environment for the majority of children in cohabiting couple households…”

Where is the outrage from the Media? Where are the flamboyant champions of children’s rights? Why has this information not been publicized? I thought that the public has a right to know the truth. Is there some kind of slanted, selective reporting at work here? I recall the outcry when the Catholic Church opposed the use of condoms in Africa as the means to contain AIDS. While a detour from the focus of this paper, the example illustrates my bewilderment. The Church was assailed by the usual invectives: Backward. Anti-progressive. Un-real. Non-compassionate. All the usual pejorative adjectives. But why, in this case, wasn’t I told the whole truth? For example, that South Africa has reached a 22% infection level of the entire population in spite of a massive inundation of condoms? Or that Botswana where condom sales rose from 1million to 3 million now has a rise in HIV infection cases from 27% to 45% among pregnant women? Or that Uganda with a 43% Catholic population has 4% HIV-infected adults following not condom use but abstinence? Uganda uses the National motto: “Change your behavior, change your behavior.” Why am I not told the truth? Was the repression of the facts based on personal bias?

This media selectivity “covers up” the truth about Cohabitation. The truth is: “If you want to be married for a lifetime, then you should know that cohabitating promotes the opposite outcome.” And as the Rutgers report says: “Despite its widespread acceptance by the young, the remarkable growth of unmarried cohabitation in recent years does not appear to be in children’s or society’s best interests. The evidence suggests it has weakened marriage and the intact two-parent family and thereby damaged our social well being, especially that of women and children.”

If current society were to have no real interest in maintaining a fairly healthy level of the marriage state, we would not only have gone collectively insane but we would also be committing massive social suicide. It would mean the end of the American Experiment as we have known it. The perspicacious among us are fueling the movement to educate American youth not only about the dangers of cohabitation but also about the drive for same sex “marriage.” Both of these corruptions are serious enemies of Marriage. The country should know this. The hypothesis of the study follows: “...society wide, the growth of cohabitation will tend to further weaken marriage as an institution...particularly if one or both parties had cohabitated with some one else or brought children into the relationship.”

Can we get the word out? Can we stop institutionalizing cohabitation and get back to revitalizing marriage? How do we publicize the findings of sociology and psychology as they try to catch up with the Wisdom of God? After all, it was the Lord Jesus Who made marriage a Sacrament. I don’t recall Him ever attending parties for fornicators or sodomites! When the Lord God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, He did not stipulate a time limit or statute of limitation after which Cohabitation and Same Sex unions would become holy. C’mon, USA, get really real!!!!!!

[1] Available from the National Marriage Project, Rutgers—the State University of New Jersey. 25 Bishop Place, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-1181
[2] The caveat: cohabitating couples living for a short and immediate prelude to marriage can be the exception providing one or both partners have not cohabited with someone else or brought children into the relationship.

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