Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 19, 2004
Common-law couple dilemma
Living together can erode chances of a good marriage
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Common-law unions have increased dramatically over the past 20 years and have become an integral part of conjugal living in Canada.
Perhaps an indication of the changing times, living common-law has become younger people's favoured arrangement for a first conjugal relationship.
But Catholic experts in marriage and family life remain unconvinced of the value of pre-trial marriages, and insist that trial marriages are bad for couples because, among other things, these unions endanger the stability of possible future marriages.
According to census data, common-law unions have more than doubled, from six per cent of all families in 1981 to 14 per cent in 2001. While some couples decide to live common-law in a second or subsequent relationship, many are choosing this type of arrangement as their first conjugal union.
The Church knows this well. Up to 70 per cent of the more than 500 couples that received their marriage preparation through the Family Enrichment Centre last year were already living together.
"I think people fall into this as a way of approaching marriage," says John MacDonald, director of the Family Enrichment Centre. "Many young couples are afraid of that commitment so they want to try it out first."
Relationship of convenience
Carolyn Donnelly, a St. Albert psychologist and family counsellor, said people fall into common-law relationships for a variety of reasons, including convenience and loneliness.
The main problems with cohabitation are the lack of stability in the relationship and the low levels of commitment and trust, she said. "It's easy to split in a common-law relationship because there is no commitment. You can easily say, 'I don't need these problems' and simply walk out."
Married couples are more successful in solving difficulties because they have made a public commitment to each other, Donnelly said. "Marriage provides security and stability to the relationship."
Studies repeatedly show that living together actually increases the likelihood the marriage will end in divorce. According to a 1999 study at the University of Victoria, women who have lived with a man out of wedlock are 80 per cent more likely to eventually divorce or separate than are women who have never had a live-in relationship.
Men who have been in a common-law union are 150 per cent more likely to experience marital breakdown.
"I think (living together) is something that has become sort of an intermediate step toward marriage," MacDonald said.
Living together may lock couples into situations they don't really want.
"In other words, they are on the train and the train is heading toward the altar and they don't know how to get off the train, although they think maybe they should. They can't do it."
Living together also degrades marriage, MacDonald said. "It does lead to recognition that the marital act is not necessarily something special and sacred with one individual," he said.
Every year numerous couples get married who have been living together two or three years.
One suggestion made at marriage preparation courses is for the couples to consider living apart until their wedding day, MacDonald noted. "If there is no separation, then the marital act on the wedding night becomes just another act of intimacy between a couple; it takes on no special significance."
Father Mike McCaffery, associate pastor at St. Joseph's Basilica, said couples are going to live together before marriage whether the Church likes it or not.
"I suppose we wish they wouldn't but it is a reality and we have to deal with that reality and do the best we can with the situation," he said, noting that 60 to 70 per cent of the couples that he deals with are living together.
For many couples, living together is not a moral dilemma as it was 40 years ago. "Some pundits would say that's because generally people are dissatisfied with the teaching of the Church in the area of sexuality," McCaffery said. " That's probably one of the reasons they live together without feeling guilty."
Pay the price
Living together before marriage is harmful because this sometimes stunts people's growth as a couple. "They become satisfied with the status quo when they live together and there are probably issues they forget to look at," McCaffery said. "Sometimes they have to repress their feelings. Maybe one of them is not happy cohabitating but they do it out of fear of losing the person they love."
Father Roger Keeler, pastor at St. Michael-Resurrection Parish and judicial vicar of the Alberta Regional Tribunal, said it seems to be a societal norm today that a couple live together before they marry. "It is almost expected."
The Church may disagree with cohabitation, but that does not mean priests should refuse to officiate at the marriages of cohabiting couples. "The Lord himself exhorted us not to 'break a bruised reed or quench a flickering flame' (Matthew 12:20)," Keeler said.
"Surely, the mere fact that these women and men are approaching the Church is a sign of something stirring within them. To deal with them harshly or with impatience, or without listening to their perspective - even as much as we may disagree with it - does little to salve the wounded, or to breathe life into that which is fragile."
Does this mean that we accept these couples silently and without question?
"No," Keeler replies. If we deny them the resources of Church to build a solid relationship, "then we fail them and we fail the commission that has been entrusted to us by the Lord who calls all of us to follow his 'way, truth and life.'"