Why is it wrong for a couple to live together and 'try out' marriage?

Dear Fr. Joe: Why does the Church say it’s wrong for people who love each other to live together and try out marriage before they actually marry? With such a high divorce rate, it only seems to make sense that a couple really make sure before marriage.

This is definitely a key issue in marriage today, and I thank you for the chance to write about it. I don’t know what the statistics on this are, but the phenomena of couples living together before marriage – we’ll call it cohabitation from now on – is definitely on the rise.

At some point, portrayals of couples living together before marriage have become so widespread in television shows and commercials that we now have an entire generation of young people who have been raised with the idea that this is a normal and acceptable way to live. I hope to clearly and succinctly present the Church’s teachings here so that young couples struggling with this decision can be well-informed, and so parents can discuss this issue openly with their children.

Let’s establish right away that living together before marriage does not lessen the incidence of divorce. Ask any priest doing marriage preparation and they will let you know that more couples than ever are living together, and yet the rate of failed marriages continues to creep up. People who work in the “business of marriage” know that this does not help. Why is that?

First of all, couples who cohabitate generally feel a great deal of pressure to get married. I know there are a great many couples living together who have expressed frustration about feeling pushed to get married. Often, one person in the relationship wants to get married, and feels rejected and frustrated, because the other person doesn’t seem to want the same thing.

As a general rule, I’ve observed that when two people live together, one of them wants to get married more than the other. The person who wants to get married ends up “dating” the entire time of their cohabitation – meaning they are on their best behavior. Those of you who are married, remember dating? Remember how much it differed from married life?

Cohabiting couples usually have one person dating and one person settled. If they get married, the dating person has accomplished their goal, and stops “dating.” This causes frustration. I have had newlyweds in my office talking to me about this phenomenon and it usually culminates with one person pointing at the other and saying,“She (or he) wasn’t like this when we lived together!” Of course they weren’t. They were dating!

The most important reason for avoiding cohabitation is found in Scripture and sacred tradition. These two sources have made it clear that sexual activity is for marriage only. Some of Jesus’ strongest words concern sexual purity – recall the passage about plucking out your eye. St. Paul’s strongest words are on the same topic. Let’s look at the Catechism: “Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.” (CCC 2353)

These are pretty strong words and worthy of our consideration!

To all parents, I urge you to begin speaking to your children as soon as they are ready. Tell them the Church’s vision for people who are in love. Tell them the value of their sexuality and the power of being able to tell their spouse, “I have saved myself for you and waited for you my whole life.”

To all young couples considering cohabitation, I invite you to reflect on the wisdom and tradition that has been passed down through every tribe and tongue. There is a power and beauty to what the Church teaches us about saving our sexuality for marriage. There is a gift in being able to tell your children that you and your spouse remained pure. Please pray together and find another way to get by financially and socially without living together.

This is God’s plan for marriage. This is God’s plan for you.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!