Preparing Cohabiting Couples for Marriage

John Boyle FAITH Magazine September-October 2006

Cohabiting now the Norm not the Exception

In many British Catholic parishes most engaged couples who present themselves for marriage preparation appear to be cohabiting. It is fair to say that most priests would be pleasantly surprised if a couple were to supply different home addresses when the pre-nuptial enquiry form is being filled in. Cohabitation is commonly understood to involve living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. This public state of life contradicts the natural meaning of such a commitment and the covenantal relationship of Christ with the Church. And this relationship, if they are both baptized, is one which they happen to be preparing to enter into sacramentally. The question of how to approach such preparation can be a difficult one.

Canon Law states clearly the right of couples to marry: “All can contract marriage who are not prohibited by law” (Can. 1058). Impediments render one legally incapable of contracting a valid marriage. These impediments can be of divine origin (e.g. being already bound by an existing bond of marriage) or of ecclesiastical origin (e.g. being in sacred orders). In order to contract marriage validly, one who is impeded by ecclesiastical law must obtain a dispensation from the appropriate authority. An impediment of divine law cannot be dispensed. Marriage can be prohibited under certain circumstances.

The universal law of the Church prohibits the marriage of a Catholic to a baptised non-catholic. For such a marriage to be licit, the permission of the local Ordinary must be obtained. Without this permission the marriage would be valid but illicit. A local Ordinary can, in a specific case, forbid a marriage of a Catholic who is one of his subjects or who is actually present in his territory, but he can only do so for a time, for a grave reason and while that reason persists. But no such prohibition could be invalidating since only supreme authority can attach an invalidating clause to a prohibition. (Cf. Can. 1077)

Cohabitation is not amongst the impediments to marriage. Neither is there any prohibition of cohabiting couples from marriage in universal law. Could a local Ordinary prohibit marriages of those who are cohabiting? It would appear not since he only has the authority to make a prohibition for a particular case (i.e. couple). A general prohibition would not be in keeping with the law. In any event, no such prohibition could be invalidating. So, there is no prohibition upon those who are living together from getting married. Therefore, in and of itself, the fact that a couple are living together is not a sufficient reason for postponing or refusing to celebrate their wedding. However, it is recognised that such couples may be in need of particular formation and preparation in the light oftheir situation.

Marriage Patterns in Great Britain

Census data for 2001 published on the National Statistics website tell us that those with no religion were the most likely to be cohabiting in Great Britain in 2001 (16\% amongst 16 to 24 year olds). Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were the least likely to do so. Young Muslim adults were more likely to be married (22\%) than young people from any other religious background. Christians and those with no religion were the least likely to be married—3\% of 16 to 24 year olds in each group.

Hindus and Sikhs of all age groups are the least likely (10 to 11\%) to be divorced, separated or re-married. This compares with 17 per cent of Muslims, 34 per cent of Christians and 43 per cent of those with no religion. The graphs show that the living arrangements of young Christians are broadly in line with those who profess no religion. It seems that about 12½ per cent of young Christians are living with a partner, and about 9 per cent (or 75\% of those who are living with a partner, which is the more interesting figure for us) are cohabiting. We need to recognise therefore that most Christians have gone the way of the world in this regard. Our experience as priests confirms that the majority of Catholics are no exception.

Those who profess to be Christian, together with those with no religion, are the least likely to get married. The majority of Christians aged between 16 and 24 who are living with a partner are not married. On the other hand, the majority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in this age range who are living with a partner are married.

A study in the Office on National Statistics’ Population Trends bulletin published in 1999 showed that people who cohabit for the first time are up to nine times more likely to split up than married people, and those living together for the second time are up to six times as likely to separate as those in a second marriage. Marriage is therefore inherently more stable than cohabitation. This further supports having a positive attitude towards a couple which comes to us to move from cohabitation to marriage.

American Studies

The American Bishops have looked into this question in some detail. In the US it is seen as a problem that needs a response, and priests have been given guidance. In 1999 they published Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples (MPCC). The profile of the cohabiting household is broadly similar in America as it is in the UK. The average cohabiting household stays together just over one year and children are part of two- fifths of these households. Men are more often serial or repeat cohabitors, moving from woman to woman, while women tend to cohabit only one time.

The reasons for cohabitation include “seeking to ensure a good future marriage and (belief) that a ‘trial marriage’ will accomplish this; many are simply living together because it seems more economically feasible or because it has become the social norm… Cohabitation may be in equal parts an alternative to marriage and an attempt to prepare for marriage.” (MPCC Part One, 3)

Overall, less than half of cohabiting couples ever marry. The US bishops see those “who choose to marry instead of continuing to cohabit (as) the ‘good news’ in a culture that is increasingly anti-marriage.” As regards the risk of breakdown after marriage, the bishops report:

Those cohabiting couples who move to marriage seem to be the ‘best risk’ of a high risk group: they have fewer risk factors than those cohabitors who choose not to marry. Even so, they still divorce at a rate 50\% higher than couples who have never cohabited. They are a high risk group for divorce and their special risk factors need to be identified and addressed, especially at the time of marriage preparation, if the couples are to build solid marriages. (MPCC Part One, 4)

The Risk Factors (MPCC, Part One, 5)

The US bishops suggest that the very attitudes, issues and patterns that lead a couple to a decision to cohabit often become the predisposing factors to put them at high risk of divorce when they do choose to move from cohabitation to marriage. The cohabitation experience itself creates risk factors, bad habits, that can sabotage the subsequent marriage. These attitudes and patterns can be identified and brought to the couple preparing for marriage for examination, decision-making, skill-building, change. Without creating "self-fulfilling prophecies,"those preparing cohabiting couples for marriage can help them identify and work with issues around commitment, fidelity, individualism, pressure, appropriate expectations. The Bishops’ offer a significant list of “predisposing attitudes andcharacteristics”, which can be seen, along with the whole document on their website.

Catholic Principles

The Church speaks of distinct phases in preparation for marriage: remote, proximate and immediate preparation. The first two are supposed to take place within the family and at school, in a manner appropriate to the age and condition concerned. The marriage preparation given by a parish priest or other agency is, in practice, immediate preparation.

In most cases the couple already have a date set for the wedding and time is often short. Priests can often feel they are given an inadequate opportunity to provide effective marriage preparation because it cannot be assumed that the prior phases have been given. In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the various factors that might lead a couple into cohabitation. He wrote:

Each of these elements presents the church with arduous pastoral problems... . The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation. (Familiaris consortio, 81)

The US bishops’ approach seems difficult to argue with, viz. the avoidance of two extremes: immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behaviour on the one hand, and ignoring the cohabitation aspect of their relationship on the other. There needs to be a “middle way” integrating “general correction with
understanding and compassion.” (MPCC, Part 2, 1).

Whilst, in the past, some pastors chose to ignore the entire issue of cohabitation because of the awkwardness of dealing with the situation, most it seems (in the US at least) have now abandoned this approach in favour of addressing the cohabitation gently but directly. This is an act of love for the couple in the process of spiritual growth. Once one discovers that a couple are cohabiting, it may not be wise to discuss this issue immediately, but rather it should be flagged up as an issue to be addressed at a subsequent meeting. But it should be discussed earlier rather than later in the marriage preparation process.

Specific Objectives of Marriage Preparation

Like all marriage preparation, we would hope to create in them a clear awareness of the essential characteristics of Christian marriage: unity, fidelity, indissolubility, fruitfulness (cf. Faith editorial, March /April 2006). We want them to become more aware of marriage as a sacrament and sign of God’s love for the Church and, consequently, of the hope that the Church places upon married couples and families to perform the mission which is rightly theirs in the Church and in the world. For cohabiting couples, an added goal would be reflection on their situation, why they decided to cohabit, what has led them to the decision to marry, what particular challenges they might face, how they might be at particular risk of marital disruption.

Should cohabiting couples be encouraged to separate before marriage? Most priests will recognise that to demand that cohabitees separate before marriage is unreasonable. Yet there are ways in which they might be encouraged to do so. Some way needs to be found to help couples see that marriage is not a continuation of the life already begun as a cohabiting couple. As the Catechism says: "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". (CCC 2350)

The US bishops suggest that the challenge to separate or to live chastely is more fruitfully posed after the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality has been carefully explained. As the diocese of Peoria’s 1997 guidelines
put it, after suitable instruction “The priest must ask the couple to consider chaste and separate living and give the couple time to reflect on their decision.”

This is a call to conversion, to integral preparation for marriage and to a ceremony free of contradictory signs. Many positive results have been reported by priests who do this. Sometimes couples have returned to their priests, surprised by the new insights they have gained through living separately, giving them new perspectives on their relationships.

In the final analysis we cannot insist on separation. At least we can see the marriage and the preparation for marriage as assisting them in regularising their situation. Only if one seriously doubts that the marriage will be both valid and lawful may one postpone the it and prolong the preparation. Pope John Paul offered sensible guidance to the priest/minister who might have concerns about the couple’s preparedness for marriage, particularly the issue of freedom from sin:

The faith of the person asking the Church for marriage can exist in different degrees, and it is the primary duty of pastors to bring about a rediscovery of this faith and to nourish it and bring it to maturity. But pastors must also understand the reasons that lead the church also to admit to the celebration of marriage those who are imperfectly disposed. (FC 68)

It is to be assumed that a couple have the right intention, at least implicitly, and that they are consenting to what the Church intends to do when it celebrates marriage. Pope John Paul warned against setting any further criteria by which to judge a couple’s eligibility for marriage:

As for wishing to lay down further criteria for admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage, criteria that would concern the level of faith of those to be married,
this would above all involve grave risks. In the first place, the risk of making unfounded and discriminatory judgments; second, the risk of causing doubts about
the validity of marriages already celebrated, with grave harm to Christian communities and new and unjustified anxieties to the consciences of married couples; one
would also fall into the danger of calling into question the sacramental nature of many marriages of brethren separated from full communion with the Catholic
Church, thus contradicting ecclesial tradition. (FC 68)

However, where it is clear that those to be married do not intend marriage as the Church’s understands it, then refusal might not only be a possibility but a requirement:

However, when in spite of all efforts engaged couples show that they reject explicitly and formally what the Church intends to do when the marriage of baptized
persons is celebrated, the pastor of souls cannot admit them to the celebration of marriage. In spite of his reluctance to do so, he has the duty to take note
of the situation and to make it clear ... that in these circumstances it is not the Church that is placing an obstacle in the way of the celebration that they are
asking for, but themselves. (FC 68)


The US bishops recognise that additional formation needs to be given to those who prepare couples for marriage so that they can more effectively handle this issue. They encourage priests and others to “recognize this 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. 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.
Treated with sensitivity and respect, couples can be helped to understand and live the vocation of Christian marriage.” (MPCC, Conclusion, 7)

In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul presents a patient approach to this phenomenon and to those who are caught up in it. But above all, he writes, “there must be a campaign of prevention, by fostering the sense of fidelity in the whole moral and religious training of the young, instructing them concerning the conditions and structures that favour such fidelity, without which there is no true freedom; they must be helped to reach spiritual maturity and enabled to understand the rich human and supernatural reality of marriage as a sacrament.” (FC 81)

This means we must spread the message. This means we must preach upon it. The advertising media and lobby groups know the power of insisting on a message and presenting it again and again with great persuasion. Smoking has become a stigmatised behaviour by the promotion of an anti-smoking culture. Perhaps pre-marital cohabitation might become less accepted as the norm as younger generations hear the teaching afresh.

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