“Ask a Priest: Isn’t Cohabitating a Better Preparation for Marriage?”

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Q: I am wondering how you might approach the modern culture we face today, in terms of values with the consideration of what might be ideal and what might be real. I know the ideal values based in traditional Christian culture and teachings where people married so young, but I think “reality” is that more and more couples cohabitate before marriage as a trial run for compatibility because so many people marry late in life now, already fixed in their habits and self-sufficient financially. My parents married very young and are now married 50 years — God bless them! But they are in the minority. If I had married my college sweetheart, in my generation, I’m sure it wouldn’t have lasted, because I changed so much over the years. In a way, I feel like the “seasoning” of myself, spiritual maturity and growing into myself made me more fit to be a committed partner, and cohabitation before marriage convinced me that this was a man I could spend my life with. Does God want us to marry on youthful blind faith or with greater awareness of the partner who could be a greater match to our spiritual growth and fulfillment knowing he/she might draw us closer to him ultimately? Does he prefer divorce of a pre-mature, unseasoned commitment over the time-tested (even impure) process of a more adult commitment and calculated decision? I’d love to hear your thoughts. -P.D.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I appreciate your concern that people do not rush into marriage prematurely. The Church tries to avoid such pitfalls through its marriage-prep programs, though success isn’t always assured.

The question you raise, however, poses a false dilemma. It seems to presume that there are only two alternatives: either the partners are too young and unprepared and thus headed for disaster, or they have cohabitated and are “more mature” and thus bound for happier marriages. Reality is much more complex than that.

Also, the question reflects a distorted view of God. To think that God wants anyone to marry either on “blind faith” or else with “greater awareness” by cohabitating does a serious injustice to the Almighty. Let me explain.

First, the Church requires informed consent on the part of those entering marriage. “Youthful blind faith” is not sufficient, but certainly faith as such is required to enter a marriage at any age. Why? Because no one knows what the future will bring. That is part of the beauty and thrill of marriage: Two people are setting out on an adventure, with no guarantees about what lies ahead, yet they make a commitment to stay together till death.

Part of what they can rely on is the grace of the sacrament of marriage. A sacramental marriage by nature gives couples a supernatural assistance to overcome the challenges they will face.

Second, it is flat wrong to think God would prefer couples to cohabitate before marriage. Cohabitation contradicts the Sixth Commandment and leads to a blatant misuse of the gift of sexuality that God himself intends solely for marriage couples. Thus, God would not contradict himself.

Moreover, statistics indicate that cohabitation actually raises the chances of divorce. The rate can run 50% higher than for couples who don’t cohabitate. (For more reading, see Mary Beth Bonacci’s article.) That would undercut the argument that cohabitation is a good preparation for marriage.

And frankly, the idea that someone will grow in spiritual maturity by engaging in habitual serious sin doesn’t compute. The spiritual life simply doesn’t work like that. Spiritual maturity by definition implies closeness to God; habitual serious sin leads in the other direction.

Where people mature spiritually is precisely in trying to live God’s commandments. For an engaged couple that means trying to live chastely and learning to help the other partner grow in holiness. For married couples that means living the demands of marriage. These are the privileged paths to spiritual maturity.

Maybe the deeper issue here is the whole notion of reality vs. idealism. The reality of life is that we have inherited a fallen human nature. Original sin has done serious damage to us. Even after baptism we still carry the weight of concupiscence, the tendency toward sin. Only God in his great mercy can lift us above our fallen state.

So if he gives us the commandments to guide us. And since he is the one asking these things of us, we can be sure that he will also give us the grace to live those commandments. This too is “reality” — but a reality permeated by supernatural help.

My suggestion is to read into Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, which has been popularized by a namesake institute (see here). This corpus of teaching helps put God’s plan for marriage and sexuality in its proper perspective. I hope it helps you. God bless.

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