Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 6, 1999
Cohabiting couples need care
U.S. bishops want support, rather than chastisement
By JERRY FILTEAU
Catholic News Service
A report sent to the U.S. bishops Aug. 20 says the wide practice of cohabitation poses major pastoral challenges for Church marriage preparation programs.
It says marriages preceded by cohabitation are less likely to succeed than others, but pastoral ministers should approach a cohabiting couple's decision to marry as "a teachable moment."
"Here is a unique opportunity to help couples understand the Catholic vision of marriage. Here, too, is an opportunity for evangelization," the report says.
"By supporting the couple's plans for the future rather than chastising them for the past, the pastoral minister can draw a couple more deeply into the Church community and the practice of their faith."
The report, Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples, was prepared by the U.S. bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family.
The report was designed to help bishops and those in marriage preparation ministry to work pastorally with cohabiting couples who decide to marry.
It offers strong evidence that those couples are likely to need much more help than others in order to enter a stable marriage.
According to several studies cited by the report, more than half of all Americans entering a first marriage today cohabit before marriage, and the percentage cohabiting before a second or third marriage is higher.
The report says that by cohabitation it means "both having a sexual relationship and living together in the same residence" while not married.
One study cited says that the number of U.S. couples cohabiting rose from half a million in 1960 to four million in 1997.
The studies show that less than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage.
"When cohabitors do marry," the report says, "they are more at risk for subsequent divorce than those who did not cohabit before marriage. In the United States, the risk of divorce is 50 per cent higher for cohabitors than non-cohabitors."
"Serial or repeat cohabitors have higher divorce rates when they do marry than those who cohabit only once," it says.
It notes that "women tend to cohabit only one time," while "men are more often serial or repeat cohabitors, moving from woman to woman."
Compared with couples who did not cohabit, the report says:
The report, described by the committee as only a "resource paper" and not an official statement of the U.S. bishops or the committee, makes no formal policy recommendations.
- "Cohabitors have more conflict over money after they marry."
- "Domestic violence is a more common problem with cohabitors."
- "Cohabitors who marry are less effective at conflict resolution."
- "Using sex as a controlling factor" and "negative family of origin patterns" - common issues for many couples when they marry - can be reinforced and exaggerated by the cohabitation experience.
The report says that helping cohabiting couples work through the challenges they face so that they will be able to celebrate a sacramental marriage is the basic pastoral goal of the Church.
It says experience shows "two extremes are to be avoided: (1) immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behaviour, and (2) ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship."
"The general goal of marriage preparation with all couples is the same: to create a clear awareness of the essential characteristics of Christian marriage," the report says.
"For cohabiting couples," it says, "a specific goal may be added: to encourage the couple to reflect on their situation and why they decided to cohabit and to provide insights into possible consequences, factors that may present special challenges to them or put them at risk for later marital disruption."
The full report will soon be available electronically at www.nccbuscc.org/laity/marriage.