Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples

Family, Laity, Women and Youth
Reproduced with Permission

Today almost half the couples who come for marriage preparation in the Catholic Church are in a cohabiting relationship. Cohabitation, in a commonly understood sense, means living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Living together in this way involves varying degrees of physical and emotional interaction. Such a relationship is a false sign. It contradicts the meaning of a sexual relationship in marriage as the total gift of oneself in fidelity, exclusivity, and permanency.

Over the past twenty-five years cohabitation has become a major social phenomenon affecting the institution of marriage and family life.2 It is also an extremely perplexing issue for priests, deacons, and lay pastoral ministers who help couples prepare for marriage in the Church.

In 1988 the NCCB Committee on Pastoral Practices published Faithful to Each Other Forever: A Catholic Handbook of Pastoral Help for Marriage Preparation. The intent of this volume was to be a resource for those involved in marriage preparation work. It remains a very useful and comprehensive pastoral tool.

Faithful to Each Other Forever discussed (pp. 71-77) the question of cohabitation under two headings: (a) input on cohabitation from personal experiences and the behavioral sciences and (b) pastoral approaches to cohabiting couples. In this latter section the handbook drew upon the written policies of a few dioceses to present a range of possible options for working with cohabiting couples who come seeking marriage in the Church.

Now, nearly twelve years after the original work of Faithful to Each Other Forever, the cumulative pastoral experience of ministering to cohabiting couples has broadened and deepened. This is reflected, at least partially, in the increased number of dioceses that now include a treatment of the issue within their marriage preparation policies.

In this present resource paper the NCCB Committee on Marriage and Family builds upon the foundation provided by Faithful to Each Other Forever when it first treated the question of cohabitation. The paper adopts the same two-part structure: empirical data and pastoral approaches. Its purpose is two-fold:

  1. To impart INFORMATION that is current and relevant to all who participate in the Church's ministry with engaged couples, including those in diocesan leadership who might be in the process of revising their marriage preparation policies;
  2. To offer a DESCRIPTIVE OVERVIEW of common pastoral approaches now being taken in U.S. dioceses to the various situations and issues connected with the phenomenon of cohabiting couples.

This paper is neither an official statement of the Committee on Marriage and Family nor of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It does not offer formal recommendations for action. It is intended as a resource paper, offering a compilation of resources and a reflection of the present "state of the question" regarding certain issues of cohabitation. In this way, it wishes to help:

  1. bishops and diocesan staff who are reviewing and possibly revising their marriage preparation policies;
  2. priests, deacons, pastoral ministers, and lay volunteers who want to become more informed and effective in working with cohabiting couples who come to marriage preparation programs;
  3. those who are responsible for inservice and continuing education of clergy and laity who carry out the Church's ministry of marriage preparation.
  4. As pointed out in Faithful to Each Other Forever (p.71), the Committee acknowledges a distinction between sexual activity outside of marriage and cohabitation. They are not identical matters. One can exist without the other. Couples may engage in sexual intercourse without living together; other couples may share the same residence but not live in a sexual relationship. The focus of this paper, however, is on cohabitation understood as both having a sexual relationship and living together in the same residence. Moreover, in Part Two, the paper focuses even more narrowly on a segment of cohabiting couples, namely, those who choose to move out of this type of relationship and into the lifelong commitment of marriage. It is this group of engaged couples who pose certain unique pastoral challenges.

In both sections of the paper the Committee has chosen a question-and-answer format in order to organize the material in a concise manner. The Committee is very grateful to Sr. Barbara Markey, ND, PhD, Director of the Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Omaha, for helping to compile and edit the first section. In order to develop the second section, Committee staff collected marriage preparation policies representing 129 dioceses from around the country. The pastoral approaches outlined in this section emerge from an analysis of these policies, from knowledge of current pastoral practice, and from consultations with pastoral ministers. In particular, the Committee thanks Dr. James Healy, PhD, Director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, for his assistance with this part of the paper.

Finally, in the course of preparing this report, the Committee on Pastoral Practices and Bishop David E. Fellhauer, chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs reviewed and recommended changes in the text. We are very grateful for their expert involvement.

Part One: Empirical Information About Cohabitation and Marriage

Those couples who are in a cohabiting relationship and who come to the Church for marriage preparation represent only a percentage of the total cohabiting population. Nonetheless, to understand and respond to them one must appreciate some aspects of the broader phenomenon of cohabitation. This, in turn, is set within a context of widespread sexual activity outside of marriage. In this section we provide highlights of what social science has discovered about cohabitation in general and with specific reference to cohabiting couples who eventually marry.

1. How widespread is cohabitation?

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