The Risks of Cohabitation

The major goal of this chapter is to help Catholic parents, singles, siblings, relatives, friends, educators and clergy understand the serious risks of cohabitation to the happiness and psychological health of loved ones thinking considering or being in such unions and the reasons for entering such short-term, unfulfilling unions. Also, the very serious risks to children born into such unions is also presented.   

Most singles, their parents and siblings are unaware of the extensive literature on the dangers of cohabitation.  In fact, cohabitation presents a serious threat to the psychological health of those in these short term unions.  Those in them have far greater likelihood of having depressive illness and have a diminished likelihood of later marital stability and happiness.

Catholic parents, singles, siblings, relatives, friends, educators and clergy have a serious responsibility to understand and to communicate the serious risks that are associated with cohabitating relationships which usually last only several years.. Too often they enable these unions by their silence.

Family Instability

Family instability is on the rise for American children as a whole. This is mainly because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable. 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).

In the U.S., cohabitation, not divorce, now poses the biggest challenge to marriage. In 1960: 500,000 couples cohabitated and in 2010 7,529,000 couples cohabitated. More than 60% of marriages are now preceded by cohabitation (Wilcox et al. 2011.)

2013 Study of Cohabiting Unions

A 2013 report on cohabitation from the National Center for Health Statistics was based on in-person interviews conducted between 2006 and 2010 with 12, 279 women, ages 15-44. It 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 and
- 70% of women without a high school diploma cohabited as a first union, compared with 47% of those with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Roughly 40 percent of children now spend time in a cohabiting household. Twenty-one percent of children are born into cohabiting unions.

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.

In our clinical experience over the past 40 years, the common reasons for cohabitation in our clinical experience are:

  • selfishness
  • permissive parenting with a failure to teach the Church’s truth about sexuality and marriage
  • the failure of parents and Catholic educators in regard to long term preparation for marriage
  • the fear of marriage, commitment and later divorce
  • the loss of faith associated with a weakening of masculinity
  • the fear of divorce and total commitment,
  • the failure to understand Catholic marriage as a complete gift of oneself to a spouse and God
  • a lack of faith and trust in God
  • economic fears and insecurity
  • anger against the Church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage
  • rejection of the traditional view of marriage in favor of the psychological selfish view.

The contraceptive/divorce revolution has 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.
Many Catholic educators have enabled the divorce and contraceptive epidemics by either failing to teach the Church's truth about sexual morality or by deliberately attempting to undermine it in students.

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).

Blessed John Paul II wrote about cohabitation “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.

This vital issue is rarely addressed in the marriage prep programs even though many dioceses up to 75% of engaged Catholic couples cohabitate. One national study revealed that over half of all engaged couples have lived together before marriage (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University: 2002).  

An excellent statement on cohabitation is Cohabitation, Marriage and Child Wellbeing (2008) from the National Marriage Project written by Dr. David Popenoe, professor emeritus of sociology and former social and behavioral sciences dean at Rutgers,

Dr. Popenoe described cohabitation as a low commitment, high autonomy pattern of relating.  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of "The Divorce Culture" wrote, “Living together is not to marriage as spring training is to the baseball season."  The following research studies on the harmful effects of cohabitation upon couples and children demonstrates how right she is.

The Harmful Effects of Cohabitation on Relationships

  • A 1992 study of 3,300 cases found that coupled who cohabited prior to marriage have a risk for divorce that is about 46% higher than for non-cohabiters (Journal of Marriage and the family: February 1992).
  • Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married couples (Journal of Health and Social Behavior: September 2000).
  • Women cohabiting relationships are more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than married women (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University: 2002).
  • The more months of exposure to cohabitation, the less enthusiastic couples are about marriage and childbearing (Journal of Marriage & Family: 59, 1997).
  • Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents (Journal of Family Issues: January 1995).
  • Cohabiters tend to not have an ethic of commitment that is as strong as non-cohabiters.  This could explain the high rates of divorce among couples that cohabited prior to marriage (Journal of Marriage and the Family: August 1997).
  • Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose special risks to children (Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children and Social Policy.  New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2002).
  • By 2000, the total number of unmarried couples in America was almost 4.75 million, up from less than half a million in 1960 (U.S. Census Bureau: 2001).
  • Cohabitation increases acceptance of divorce among young people (Journal of Marriage & Family: 59).
  • Cohabitation can contribute to selfishness and later a lack of openness to children.
  • Respondents who cohabited after divorce or cohabited with their partner in a subsequent marriage reported, on average, lower levels of happiness in the remarriage than remarried respondents who did not cohabit at after the initial divorce (Journal of Marriage and Family: Vol. 68, Number 2. May, 2006).
  • 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. (Alabama Policy Institute: August 2006).
  • 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. A longer length of cohabitation was linked to a greater frequency of heated arguments, even when controlling for spouses' age. (Alabama Policy Institute: August, 2006)
  • Women in cohabiting relationships are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than were married women. Within cohabiting relationships, middle-aged women were at greatest risk of being killed. (Shackelford, T.K. & Mouzos, J., 2005. Partner Killing by Men in Cohabiting and Marital Relationships: A Comparative, Cross-National Analysis of Data from Australia and the United States.  Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol.30, number 10, 1310-1324.)

The Harmful Effects of Cohabitation on Children

  • A report in 2010 on child abuse by the Department of Health and Human Service that found that 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. (Abuse, Neglect,  Adoption and Foster Care Research, National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, NIS-4, 2004-2009, March 2010, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.)
  • Children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents' separation, showing an exponential increase in relationship failure for couples currently or ever cohabiting. (Smock P, 2010)
  • In 2000, 41% of all unmarried-couple households included a child under the age of 18.  This is up from only 21% in 1987 (U.S. Census Bureau: March 2000).
  • One of the major risks to children in cohabiting households is the high rate of breakup.  This leads to many personal and social difficulties for children as they face the loss of the security found in home life children (Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children and Social Policy.  New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2002).
  • Several studies have shown that children living with their mother and her unmarried partner have more behavior problems and lower academic performance than children in intact families. (Social Forces 73-1: 1994).
  • Fully three quarters of children born in cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16.  Only one third of children born to married parents will face a similar fate (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University: 2002).
  • Child abuse is a major problem in cohabiting households.  The number of reported abuse has been steadily rising over the past ten years (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University: 2002).
  • Evidence demonstrates that the most unsafe family environment for children is one in which the mother lives with a boyfriend. (The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC: 1997).
  • Among children who did not live in a consistently intact family through age 12, those whose mothers cohabited at some time experienced a higher level of family instability, measured by the number of transitions in household structure, than those whose mothers had not cohabited, 2.6 vs. 1.4 for white children, and 2.0 vs. 0.7 for Black children, (Journal of Marriage and Family: Vol. 66, February, 2004).
  • Anne-Marie Ambert, the author of a study that reviewed 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.
  • Ambert noted, "Commitment and stability are at the core of children's needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent." (Vanier Institute of Family, "Cohabitation and Marriage: How Are They Related?, 2005)
  • 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 (adjusted odds ratio: 47.6; 95% confidence interval: 10.4-218). Children in households with a single parent and no other adults in residence had no increased risk of inflicted-injury death, Schnizter, PG, Child deaths resulting from inflicted injuries: household risk factors and perpetrator characteristics. (Pediatrics. 2005, Nov;116 :687-93)

Hopefully, parents of young adults who are considering cohabitation, as well as other family members, friends, educators and clergy, can grow in confidence to share with these dangers posed by cohabitation.

Faith Reflections on Cohabitation

John Paul II addressed the Church's teaching about cohabitation in The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, described as the Magna Carta for Catholic families. He wrote:

"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.

Pope Benedict commented on the importance of strong marriages,

"The family is the nucleus in which a person first learns human love and responsibility, generosity and fraternal concern.  Strong families are build on the foundation of strong marriages. Strong societies are built on the foundation of strong families."  Pope Benedict XVI, September 14, 2007.