Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 15, 2008
Common law unions often sow seeds of divorce
Marriage allows a couple to give to each other totally and without reservation
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - You would never buy shoes without trying them on first. Many people apply this same logic to marriage, choosing to live together to test their compatibility.
An indication of the changing times, living common law has become younger people's favoured arrangement for a first conjugal relationship. As well, many older people whose first marriage has ended opt for a common-law union the next time.
God, however, does not sanction a long-term shack up.
Paul Flaman, associate professor of theology at St. Joseph's College, said that living together is not a good test for married life because marriage is a permanent commitment, whereas common-law relationships are usually non-committal and temporary.
"It tends to be commitment that makes marriages work for the long term," said Flaman.
WALKING ON EGGSHELLS
"Often communication and trust are not as good in non-married relationships. If you realize that your partner hasn't made this unconditional commitment, a lot of times he won't talk about difficult issues, people are walking around on eggshells, and might fear the other person will split, so a lot of issues that should be talked about are not dealt with and the problems escalate."
Some people hope to economize by sharing living costs or see common law living as a remedy for loneliness or an escape from an unpleasant home environment. Whatever the motive, living together almost always leads to sexual intimacy.
"Pope John Paul II was reiterating the longstanding Christian Catholic tradition that sex outside of marriage is immoral," said Flaman.
As embodied persons, the sexual union between a man and woman naturally expresses a total giving of each to the other. But a couple who have not made that same kind of commitment through their wedding vows, said Flaman, are not giving themselves totally and without reservation.
They are, in a sense, "lying with their bodies." Their sexual relations provide a false sense of intimacy.
Marriage preparation courses, improving communication skills, and learning the virtues as children are better ways of preparing for marriage, said Flaman.
In his 2000 paper "Is Living Together Really a Good Way to Test or Prepare for Marriage?" he cited academic studies showing that 80 to 85 per cent of couples who start out living together fail to make it through life together.
Among couples who never lived together before marrying, the failure rate is less than 20 per cent.
Paul Quist, associate director for the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said, "The problem with cohabitation is that it tends towards divorce for those who decide to get married later, which seems kind of counterintuitive.
"But the reality is that if a couple cohabitates or are even sexually involved with each other before marriage, it means they are more likely to divorce when they marry."
Both couples and their children are impacted by "de facto marriages." Quist said children growing up in a traditional family tend to fare better in school and are less likely to get involved in crime.
"All of the social indicators say that the kids who do the best are the kids raised by a mom and dad in what's called the traditional family," said Quist. "That doesn't mean there aren't single parents out there who heroically raise their children and do as great a job as they can and love their kids."
A COVENANT RELATIONSHIP
Catholic teaching on marriage is based on the biblical notion of covenant. Marriage is often a metaphor that describes the covenant relationship between God and the Hebrew people and between Jesus Christ and his Church.
Quist said that living together before marriage impedes intimacy and freedom because at the heart of the covenant is the free choice, the consent. If a couple is already sharing property, co-owning pets and raising children, the decision to marry becomes more difficult.
Couples who rely on their romantic feelings and passions mask the problems in the relationship.
"They aren't doing the kind of discerning and conversations, arguing and goal setting, dreaming and planning. They think they're compatible because they're sexually compatible, and all those other building blocks of the foundation that are necessary for a successful and lifelong marriage, are lacking," said Quist.
Father Mike McCaffery said that during the recent priests' retreat in Jasper, a psychologist told them that marriage is the most difficult decision and most important commitment a couple will ever make.
Marriage, the sacred union of man and woman, is a sign of the permanent, faithful and hopefully fruitful covenant that's made on the day they make their vows.
Security, economics or perhaps the fear of divorce keep people living together and not marrying, he said.
McCaffery said a "marriage amnesty" might be an idea for welcoming back couples who have been married outside of the Church.
"There are very few people who leave the Church because it is too forgiving. But there are legions who leave the Church because it is unforgiving," he said.
His motto is "Challenge but never crush." More couples might be encouraged to marry, he said, if the Church treated them with compassion and understanding.
Marriage preparation courses are a must. Most engaged couples want some type of marriage preparation course, he said. Witnessing their parents and seeing happily married couples in their parish provide strong examples for those about to wed.
In Canada, the laws involving common-law relationships fall under provincial jurisdiction.
In Alberta, common-law marriage has been subsumed since 2003 under the terms of the Adult Interdependent Relationship Act, which applies to any two unrelated people living together in a mutually dependent relationship for three years.
Unlike the other provinces, Quebec has a civil code and has never recognized a common-law partnership as a kind of marriage.