Cohabitation Unions:

A risk to marriage, adults and children

Susan was a 26-year-old, attractive, intelligent woman who came into our practice with symptoms of intense anxiety, panic episodes, sadness and intense anger.  She was able to identify the origins of her emotional pain as the result of the ending of her two-year cohabiting relationship with 28-year-old Michael.  She had hoped when she moved in with him that their relationship would lead to marriage and children.  The romantic and sexual relationship were not sufficient to offset the pain of being living with a person who was profoundly selfish and not interested in being a responsible and sacrificially giving husband and father.  Michael was from a two child Catholic family in which he was overly indulged and in which he never engaged in sacrificial giving.

We have treated many young women and men with similar stories who needed an SSRI, anti-depressant/antianxiety medication, in addition to psychotherapy for their sadness, intense fears of being betrayed, anger and insecurity.

A 2014 article in Scientific American (November) revealed that antidepressant use among Americans is skyrocketing. Adults in the U.S. consumed four times more antidepressants in the late 2000s than they did in the early 1990s.

As the third most frequently taken medication in the U.S., we have seen a marked increase in young women in particular and men who needed these medications for their sadness, intense fears of betrayal, damaged self-esteem and anger following the ending of cohabiting relationships.  They, their families and friends failed to understand the severe risks and profound selfishness found in these relationships that shatter dreams and psychological health. 

The widespread cultural acceptance of cohabitation has led the majority of Catholics to believe falsely that this lifestyle is psychologically healthy, prepares young adults for marriage and helps in weeding out negative relationships before a lifelong marriage.  The harsh reality is that these unions are short lived and regularly leave deep psychological scars in those involved, as well as to children born into them.

The clear teaching of St. John Paul II on marriage, the family and cohabitation from The Role of the Christina Family in the Modern World is needed now more than ever, especially in view of the Holy Father’s recent comments on marriage and cohabitation.  The Holy Father unfortunately stated at a pastoral congress on the family for the Diocese of Rome on June 16 that the majority of marriages are null and that some cohabiting couples are in a “real marriage,” receiving the grace of the Sacrament.

St.John Paul II wrote of cohabitation:

"The Church for her part, cannot admit such a kind of union, for further and original reasons which derive from faith.  For, in the first place, the gift of the body in the sexual relationship is a real symbol of the giving of the whole person: such a giving, moreover, in the present state of things cannot take place with full truth without the concourse of the love of charity, given by Christ. In the second place, marriage between two baptized persons is a real symbol of the union of Christ and the Church, which is not a temporary or trial union but one which is eternally faithful.  Therefore, between two baptized persons there can exist only an indissoluble marriage," Familiaris Consortio, n. 80.

Catholic parents, Bishops, priests, singles, siblings, relatives, friends, educators need more knowledge about the reality of cohabiting unions in order to protect youth from them.  Such knowledge would give them greater confidence in fearlessly and courageously stating the serious risks of cohabitation to the long term happiness and psychological health of those considering this lifestyle. 

Prevalence of Cohabitation

In the U.S., cohabitation poses a major challenge to marriage. In 1960: 500,000 couples cohabitated, while in 2012 7.8 million couples cohabitated. Also, now more than 60% of marriages are preceded by cohabitation (Wilcox et al. 2011.)  Cohabitation is response to a significant degree from the retreat from marriage. 

Many Catholic single males are engaging in a major retreat from marriage.  By cohabiting they can see no reason for marriage since their needs for female friendship, romantic love and sexual intimacy are being met through cohabitation.  Unfortunately, most young adults have never been taught in their families, parishes or schools about the benefits of the sacrament of marriage and the dangers of cohabitation.

The massive retreat from marriage is clearly by the shocking statistics from Georgetown.  In the U.S. in 1969 there were 426, 309 Catholic marriages; in 2000. 261,626 and in 2013, 154, 450(Frequently Requested Church Statistics - Georgetown … CARA).

In addition, twenty-one percent of children are born now into these unstable unions and roughly 40 percent of children now spend time in a cohabiting household.

Brief, Painful Unions

A 2013 report on cohabitation from the National Center for Health Statistics on 12, 279 women, ages 15-44 demonstrated:

- as a first union, 48% of women cohabited with their male partner, up from 43% in 2002 and 34% in 1995;

- 22 months was the median duration of first cohabitation, up from 20 months in 2002 and 13 months in 1995;

-19% of women became pregnant and gave birth in the first year of a first premarital cohabitation.

The Causes of Cohabitation

Blessed John Paul II wrote in The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, “It will be very useful to investigate the causes of this phenomenon, including its psychological and sociological aspect, in order to find the proper remedy”, n. 80.

Dr. Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia has written, “Also, one of the primary reasons for getting married— starting a family—is increasingly viewed as a relic of the past. The institution of marriage, and even the presence of two parents, are seen as nice but not necessary for raising children. Thus, even when a baby is coming, many young adults see no need to rush to the altar. Finally, many young adults in romantic relationships greatly overestimate the chances that they have already met their future spouse, which makes them vulnerable to sliding into parenthood even though they haven’t married.” (Why Marriage Matters, 2011).

In our clinical experience over the past 40 years, the six leading causes of cohabitation are:

• profound selfishness with a distaste for sacrificial giving

the contraceptive mentality with the acceptance of using another as a sexual object

the epidemic of pornography use

• a lack of preaching and teaching about the goodness and beauty of the sacrament of marriage and the risks associated with contraception since the release of Humane Vitae in 1968

• the fear of divorce and, subsequently, commitment

lack of faith and trust in the Lord with the sacrament of marriage and children

The contraceptive/divorce revolution has clearly undercut the younger generation’s faith in marriage: About 37% of young adults say “marriage has not worked out for most people they know,” (Wilcox 2010). The contraceptive/divorce revolution’s bitter fruit is the cohabitation epidemic and the retreat from marriage.

Unfortunately, many Bishops, priests, religious and Catholic educators have deliberately been at work for decades trying to undermine the Church’s liberating truth about sexual morality in their dioceses, secondary schools and universities.

St. John Paul II and Origins 

St. John Paul II in has written about the origins of cohabitation which is consistent with our clinical work and that of many Catholic mental health professionals:

“At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one's own selfish well-being, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, n.6.

Many young women and men have been traumatized by this toxic, arrogant selfishness.

St. John Paul II also wrote other factors,

“In other cases, however, one encounters people who scorn, rebel against or reject society, the institution of the family and the social and political order, or who are solely seeking pleasure. Then there are those who are driven to such situations by extreme ignorance or poverty, sometimes by a conditioning due to situations of real injustice, or by a certain psychological immaturity that makes them uncertain or afraid to enter into a stable and definitive union. In some countries, traditional customs presume that the true and proper marriage will take place only after a period of cohabitation and the birth of the first child,” F.C., 81.

Amoris Laetitia and Origins

Amoris Laetitia identifies cohabitation as “often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to sacramental marriage, but by cultural and contingent situations.” n. 294. The analysis completely ignores the serious psychological conflicts of selfishness and anger against sacramental marriage in those who chose to use others as sexual objects in cohabiting unions, but never plan to marry or have children.  AL is profoundly weak and inaccurate in its analysis of the origins of the issues in the majority of those who cohabitate.

Harm in Cohabiting Unions:

Dr. Popenoe, former director of the National Marriage Project, has accurately described cohabitation as a low commitment, high autonomy pattern of relating.  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture commented that, “Living together is not to marriage as spring training is to the baseball season." 

Psychological research is showing that those in them have far greater likelihood of having depressive and anxiety disorders and have a diminished likelihood of later marital stability and happiness. Also, the children born into these unstable relationships that lack deep commitment have far more psychological disorders than those in marriages.

Research studies demonstrate that:

• Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married

• Women cohabiting relationships are more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than married women

  • Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents

  • Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose special risks to children

  • Cohabitation increases acceptance of divorce among young people

  • Cohabitation can contribute to selfishness and later a lack of openness to children.

  • Compared with peers who had not cohabited prior to marriage, individuals who had cohabited reported higher levels of depression and the level of depression also rose with the length of cohabitation.

  • The longer couples cohabited before marrying, the more likely they were to resort to heated arguments, hitting, and throwing objects when conflicts arose in their subsequent marriage.

  • Women in cohabiting relationships are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than were married women.

Harm to Children

Today twenty-one percent of children are born now into these unstable unions and roughly 40 percent of children now spend time in a cohabiting household.

Additional studies demonstrate:

  • child abuse is a major problem in cohabiting households.  children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rates of harm, 6.8 per 1,000 children, while children living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the house had the highest incidence, at 57.2 per 1,000 children. Children living in cohabiting households are 8 times more likely to be harmed than children living with married biological parents.

  • In a study of 149 inflicted-injury deaths during the 8-year study period children residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with 2 biological parents.

  • Children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents' separation and fully three quarters of children born in cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16.

  • a review of hundreds of research papers that examined the social, emotional and financial effects of cohabitation and marriage on women, men, children and society, concluded that cohabitation is inherently unstable and carries a high cost on children's physical and psychological development.

  • The author noted, "Commitment and stability are at the core of children's needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent."

  • A 2011 report indicated that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems?drug use, depression, and dropping out of high school?compared to children in intact, married families," (Why Marriage Matters, 2011).

St. John Paul II and Risks

In Familiaris Consotio, St. John Paul II wrote:

"Each of these elements presents the Church with arduous pastoral problems, by reason of the serious consequences deriving from them, both religious and moral (the loss of the religious sense of marriage seen in the light of the Covenant of God with His people; deprivation of the grace of the sacrament; grave scandal), and also social consequences (the destruction of the concept of the family; the weakening of the sense of fidelity, also towards society; possible psychological damage to the children; the strengthening of selfishness," F.C, n. 81).

Amoris Laetitia and Risks

Unfortunately, chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, nos. 293 and 294 on cohabitation, completely ignores the extensive sociological and psychological science on the numerous risks to children and adults from unstable cohabiting unions.  Also, it fails to warn about the harm to marriage caused by them.

New Catechesis

The severe harm caused by the cohabitation epidemic and the retreat from marriage and can only be brought to an end by new systematic catechesis for our time on the truth and beauty of God’s plan for married life and sexuality.  St. John Paul II’s The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body could be an important foundation for such a program.  This ground breaking theology has hardly been introduced to Catholic parents and young Catholics in families, parishes, and schools.