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Why Cohabitation is not a Good Idea

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By Caitlyn Woodham, The Catholic University of America

According to the Pew Research center, about 69% of adults in the U.S. say that cohabitation is acceptable, even if the couple do not plan to get married. About 16% see cohabitation as permissible, but only if they plan to get married, and only ​​14% who say it is never permissible. In the United States, 46% of adults say it is just as well off if couples who want to stay together long-term decide not to marry, whereas 53% say it is better off if couples who want to stay together long-term eventually want to get married.[1]

This leads Catholics to ask the question, “is cohabitation a morally permissible act?”

Cohabitation is not permissible for couples to engage in because sex must be both unitive and procreative in order to be conducive toward virtue, which can only be fully expressed within a marriage.

What is the purpose of sex?

In order to determine the morality of sexual cohabitation, one must first examine what the purpose of sex is. The Church teaches that the purpose of sex is for the union of spouses and the procreation of children. Sex must be both unitive and procreative in order to be conducive toward virtue, since this is the intended purpose of sex, as intended by God. 

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2363:

The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.[2]

This teaching of the Church can also be confirmed by natural law. Scientifically speaking, sexual intercourse produces the chemicals vasopressin and oxytocin, which help promote bonding between a couple. [3][4]

Sexual intercourse that is not open to new life cannot be fully unitive, nor can it be fully procreative. Sexual intercourse that is not an expression of permanence is not fully unitive because the couple has not committed themselves publicly to share an exclusive lifelong relationship. It is also not fully procreative because being open to life is not only about conceiving a child, but also being willing to care for the child and raise the child. The true purpose and intention of sex can only be fully lived out in a married relationship. Marriage, is not the only requirement for virtuous sex, as one can be lustful even within a marriage (including towards one’s spouse), however, sex cannot be virtuous without marriage. Since both sex and marriage are interconnected, they are understood to have the same meaning and purpose.[5]

The purpose of marriage

One may question the necessity of marriage for sex. One argument is that a couple could be fully committed to each other, and express that commitment without having a wedding ceremony, and see marriage as just a piece of paper, rather than a covenantal relationship where vows are exchanged. The Catholic Church teaches that sacramental marriage is a sign of God’s relationship with his people, which is also conveyed in Ephesians 5. Jesus also taught about the permanence of marriage in Matthew 19. The sacrament of marriage and the commitment of spouses to one another is symbolic of God’s faithful love towards humanity.[6] Marriage is a lifelong commitment (till death do us part). Married couples generally experience strong feelings of romantic love, however, in a marriage commitment, one ought to uphold the vows of a marriage, even when these romantic feelings dissipate. The permanence of marriage is morally significant because it provides the best environment for raising children, and makes certain aspects of a shared relationship possible, that otherwise would not be possible.[7] Marriage vows help ensure the couple is on the same page in their relationship, and clarify what they commit to each other, and making this type of relationship public helps others to be aware that this has occurred and provides more accountability for the couple to uphold these vows.

Waiting for marriage to have sex helps to cultivate the virtue of temperance, which is a virtue that helps us to properly enjoy certain pleasures in a moderate manner. Sexual desire in and of itself is not sinful, however, it can become sinful if one is not careful, and may lead to the vice of lust. Properly having sex also helps to cultivate the virtue of prudence, which helps to judge the right time and circumstances to have sex, even within a marriage. For example, while it is good for a married couple to have sex in the privacy of their bedroom, it is imprudent and unchaste (and therefore immoral) for a married couple to have sex in a grocery store, because it is not the appropriate time or place for that. Another example may be a married couple who judges that it is imprudent to have sex during a certain time within their marriage if they are struggling financially, and do not want to risk the possibility of a pregnancy until such a time where they are able to financially support a child, and therefore, abstain from sexual activity during this time. In this situation, the couple is acting prudently because, while they are married and permitted to have sex, they judge in their own current circumstances that it would not be prudent to, especially since they know that it would be morally wrong to use contraception to prevent a pregnancy, or get an abortion if they were pregnant. When they reach a point where they are financially stable, they decide that it is prudent to have sex, so they can be open to life, and if a child is conceived, they know they have the means to take care of that child. As these examples show, the virtue of chastity is not only to be practiced before one is married, but even during the marriage. It also helps to cultivate the virtue of love, which is the highest of all virtues. In order to authentically love someone, they must will the good of the other. The highest good is to love God and our neighbor, as expressed in the 10 commandments, and restated by Jesus. The highest good in a marriage is to help one’s spouse and children get to heaven. Therefore, by following what God has commanded, and growing in virtue, a couple can help one another to achieve this goal, which is the highest expression of love for God and each other.

As stated earlier, cohabitation is not permissible for couples to engage in because, sex must be both unitive and procreative in order to be conducive toward virtue, which can only be fully expressed within a marriage and a non married couple, even if they truly love each other, have not reached the appropriate stage in the relationship where the sexual act can be virtuous.

Contrary to popular belief, cohabitation does not reduce the rate of divorce. According to the statistics, cohabitation before marriage and nonmarital childbearing, have an increased likelihood of divorce. The odds of divorce are 2.32% higher for women who cohabited but had no children outside of marriage, 3.11% higher for women who both cohabited and had a nonmarital birth, and 2.43% higher for women who had a nonmarital birth without cohabiting, relative to women who neither cohabited nor had a nonmarital birth before marrying.[8]

Non-sexual Cohabitation

A faithful Catholic couple may wonder, is it ever permissible for a couple discerning marriage to live together before marriage if they do not sexually cohabit?

An act can be determined as moral or immoral if it is conducive towards virtue or vice, so the question arises; does non-sexual cohabitation lead a couple towards virtue, or towards vice?

I would argue that in the majority of cases, it leads a couple towards vice, and therefore is not permissible in most cases. More specifically, it puts a couple in the near occasion of sin, and could lead to the vice of lust, and draws the couple away from the opposing virtue of chastity. In many cases, a couple already experiences sexual attraction to each other, even if they choose to be abstinent. According to Mattison, “a crucial weapon in eliminating disordered desires is refusing to put oneself in those situations where they tend to arise. This is the most obvious way to prevent bad desires from arising in the first place.”[9] A couple needs to practice the virtue of prudence to help themselves live out chastity. In a relationship, one person in a relationship may experience sexual arousal more frequently than the other person. Two people can be in the same exact situation, but have different emotional and physiological responses to the situation. So, what may lead one person in the relationship to lust (whether it be emotionally or physically) may do absolutely nothing for the other person in the relationship. So it would be most prudent for a couple, which may have different sex drives, to avoid the near occasion of sin. It may also lead to scandal, where even if the couple is successful in waiting until marriage to have sex, people in their lives may assume that they are having sex.

One may argue against this idea and say that a couple who is living together before marriage is beneficial because it could potentially help the couple to figure out their compatibility in aspects of their relationship that they will need to have when married (finances, living habits, etc.) prior to making the commitment of marriage. However, it could be argued that it is not necessary to live together before marriage in order to find out their compatibility in these areas. If a couple practices good communication skills prior to marriage, they can discuss these topics with each other, and it would be most prudent to do so. If a couple avoids discussing these topics before marriage, it could create strain on the future marriage. A couple can also make frequent visits to each other’s living spaces, which can help each other to sense what their living habits are.

Now there may be exceptions, for example living together out of absolute necessity, after other options were considered, and taking active steps to prevent each other from the potential of the near occasion of sin. Some examples of steps that a couple can take are sleeping in separate rooms and beds or living with other roommates. Living with other roommates can also help to potentially reduce the risk of scandal. That being said, exceptions should not be the norm, and this should be resorted to after considering other options, because living together before marriage is most likely not conducive towards producing virtue, even if it is circumstantially permissible.

Conclusion

The goal of the Christian Moral Life is to grow in both virtue and holiness. When we assess what the purpose of sex and marriage are, we can conclude that cohabitation is not permissible for couples to engage in because, sex must be both unitive and procreative in order to be conducive toward virtue, which can only be fully expressed within a marriage. Marriage is the only setting where the sexual act can be virtuous, and so a couple must make an effort to strive towards virtue together, and avoid near occasions of sin and vice. God created marriage to be symbolic of his covenant towards us, so it is in the best interest of the couple to grow in virtue and love, in order to have a healthy and holy marriage.

Works Cited

 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liguori Publications, Liguori, MO, 1994.

Carter, C Sue. “The Oxytocin-Vasopressin Pathway in the Context of Love and Fear.” Frontiers in Endocrinology, Frontiers Media S.A., 22 Dec. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5743651/.

Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, et al. “Views on Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/.

Magers, Andrew. “The Science of Sex before Marriage.” The Science of Sex Before Marriage – The Well Clinic, 20 Feb. 2020, https://mywellclinic.com/blog/2020/02/20/science-sex-marriage/.

Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology True Happiness and the Virtues, Brazos, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Tach, Laura M., and Sarah Halpern-Meekin. “Marital Quality and Divorce Decisions: How Do Premarital Cohabitation and Nonmarital Childbearing Matter?” Family Relations, vol. 61, no. 4, 2012, pp. 571–585., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00724.x.


[1]Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, et al. “Views on Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 27 Aug. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/11/06/marriage-and-cohabitation-in-the-u-s/.

[2] “Paragraph 2363.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liguori Publications, Liguori, MO, 1994.

[3] Magers, Andrew. “The Science of Sex before Marriage.” The Science of Sex Before Marriage – The Well Clinic, 20 Feb. 2020, https://mywellclinic.com/blog/2020/02/20/science-sex-marriage/.

[4] Carter, C Sue. “The Oxytocin-Vasopressin Pathway in the Context of Love and Fear.” Frontiers in Endocrinology, Frontiers Media S.A., 22 Dec. 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5743651/.

[5]  Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology True Happiness and the Virtues, Brazos, Grand Rapids, Mich, pp. 340.

[6] Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology True Happiness and the Virtues, Brazos, Grand Rapids, Mich, pp. 354–355.

[7] Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology True Happiness and the Virtues, Brazos, Grand Rapids, Mich, pp. 354–355.

[8] Tach, Laura M., and Sarah Halpern-Meekin. “Marital Quality and Divorce Decisions: How Do Premarital Cohabitation and Nonmarital Childbearing Matter?” Family Relations, vol. 61, no. 4, 2012, pp. 571–585., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00724.x.

[9] Mattison, William C. Introducing Moral Theology True Happiness and the Virtues, Brazos, Grand Rapids, Mich, pp. 88.

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2 Responses

  1. My understanding is that vows are not required for a marriage to be sacramental. Historically, vows were not required for anything in the beginnings of Christianity: and were even discouraged (see Matthew 5:34-37 and James 5:12).

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