Making Sense of Cohabitation
Catholic marriage is a freely given, total, unconditional commitment, faithful and open to children. The wedding vows express this explicit commitment in words. What many don’t appreciate is that the words of the vows are expressed and renewed through the body language of sexual intercourse. Every time a couple make love, they are literally renewing the vows of their wedding. It is a sacred body language that powerfully bonds the couple.
Sex says with the body “I freely give myself to you, totally, completely. I hold nothing back. And I accept you completely. I want to be one with you, in body and soul. And our children will be the fruit of our union, the literal embodiment of our one flesh union”.
This sacred message of sex is the intrinsic language of the body; it cannot mean one thing today and something else tomorrow. By its very nature it is the natural and enduring expression of total self-giving. Just as a smile is body language that expresses warmth, affection and good will, if a person uses a smile to mislead or misrepresent their true feelings, it undermines the power of a smile to ‘speak’ sincerely of this good will. The smile of that person becomes untrustworthy.
Similarly, the natural meaning and expression of sex is total, faithful and fruitful self-giving. When the body language of sex is used outside of marriage to mean limited, non-exclusive or unfruitful self-indulgence, its power to bond the couple in life-giving union is diminished and its message becomes untrustworthy. Couples who preserve sex for marriage increase its spiritual and emotional power by maintaining the sincerity of their body language.
While most people generally believe that a period of cohabitation before marriage is a wise and prudent decision to ascertain compatibility, the practice actually increases the likelihood of divorce by around 50%. Here are some reasons why cohabitation actually undermines the success of a future marriage.
- Weakens Partner Choice | Barriers to entry are much lower for cohabitation than marriage. Couples therefore tend to be less discriminating in their choice of partner as, after all, “it’s not as if we’re getting married”. This may explain why domestic violence, alcohol abuse and relationship breakdown is higher among cohabitating couples than in their married equivalents.
- Defers making a decision | Couples who live together, and therefore establish a domestic, sexual relationship, tend to delay the decision to marry. As they are already living a ‘married’ life-style, the urgency to make a decision about marriage is lessened and many couples get caught in this transitional state for prolonged periods. This situation is particularly disadvantageous to women whose ‘window of opportunity’ to begin a family is more limited than men.
- Weakens the Conviction to Marry | As couples become more involved, their living arrangements become increasingly entangled. Shared possessions, friends, pets and memories become the glue that holds them together. It’s a process called ‘Commitment Creep’ and it reduces the couple’s freedom to make a free decision to marry. Often, without ever consciously deciding to make a permanent commitment, they find themselves reluctant to break-up for the simple reason that unravelling their shared life is so complicated. The decision to marry shifts from being a proactive, positive choice to a negative aversion to the pain and bother of breaking up. Subsequently, one or both partners may be ambivalent about the decision to the marry making their commitment fragile.
- Commitment Discrepancy | There are diverse reasons for couples choosing to live together. Some are already engaged to be married. Others are in committed relationships and see it as a natural progression of the dating-courtship sequence. Still others are simply dating partners seeking to save money on rent. Some have no intention of marrying and view cohabitation as a permanent alternative to marriage. As cohabitation has so many different forms and end points, it is common for there to be differences in the expectations and level of commitment of the partners. One partner may see moving in together as a way progressing the relationship ‘to the next level’ while the other sees it as a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement while he/she keeps their options open for a possible better partner. Such differences may lead to confusion, hurt and tension, that can persist into the future marriage.
- The Trial Marriage Myth | By definition, cohabitation is a limited, conditional commitment. It is an arrangement which is understood to be putting the relationship to the test. Partners wisely enter the arrangement cautiously, withholding themselves and safeguarding their independence. They will rightly seek to protect their interests and to maintain a measure of financial freedom. Such self-protective behaviours become ‘the norm’ leading couples to establish permanent patterns of limited trust and involvement, rather than the complete trust and total self-giving of marriage. A wedding some years later is generally not sufficient to reset these patterns.
Counter cultural choices
It is with the best intentions that many enter cohabitation as a way to ‘divorce proof’ their future marriage. However, without the full scale life-commitment that is by definition what marriage is, one cannot effectively ‘trial’ a marriage without actually getting married.
Couples who sincerely desire to give their marriage the best possible opportunity for success will be better served by resisting the cultural norm of cohabitation and pre-marital sex. There are many excellent resources and services that support couples in making positive, proactive choices that will assist dating and engaged couples in discerning and establishing an effective pathway to a marriage that will bring them long-lasting joy and spiritual growth.
The Wisdom of Church
The Catholic faith calls all people to foster the virtue of chastity throughout their lives. In practice, this means developing self-mastery over the expression of our sexual passions, both inside and outside of marriage. Because of the natural, intrinsic meaning of sex, marriage is the only relationship in which sexual intercourse retains the fullness of its purpose and meaning as a freely given, total, faithful and fruitful gift of self.
“Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman”. CCC2337
In order to enjoy the most fulfilling and sacramentally effective marriage as possible, dating and engaged couples are called to refrain from sexual intercourse until they have made the same commitment in words that the body speaks in love making, that is, the wedding vows.
Intimate relationships before marriage can be especially testing on the couple’s sexual self-restraint. Dating and engaged couples are called to support each other in their pursuit of chastity in order to develop a heightened appreciation of their mutual self-donation in marriage, maintaining the integrity and honesty of their physical intimacy, so that their words and body ‘speak as one’.
Those who are engaged to marry are called to live chastity in continence. They should see in this time of testing a discovery of mutual respect, an apprenticeship in fidelity, and the hope of receiving one another from God. They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love. They will help each other grow in chastity. CCC2350