Cohabitation: "Training for Divorce"

How Separation Helped Bring a Couple Together

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

BALTIMORE, Maryland, MAR. 13, 2001 ( Steve and Terrie Nelson never planned to «live in sin.»

They grew up in the same Baltimore parish, St. Thomas More, dated as high school seniors and all through college. After graduation, they moved back with their parents and plunged into their new careers, Terry in nursing and Steve in computers.

But after several months, things changed. Steve, stressed with living at home, wanted his own place but needed a roommate to share expenses. Terrie, fed up with the roommate scene since college, suggested they move in together. Steve agreed.

They rented an apartment and thus joined the more than 4 million American couples, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, who cohabit, that is, live together in a sexual relationship outside of marriage. «It was mostly for convenience,» admits Steve, in an article in the National Catholic Register (

When they went to their parish to register for the sacrament of marriage, the deacon who was helping them fill out forms noticed they lived at the same address.

The deacon, Tom Mann, notified the pastor, Monsignor Victor Galeone, who had recently finished a set of parish guidelines for cohabiting couples seeking marriage.

«Cohabiting is far from harmless,» says Monsignor Galeone. «Did you know that sociological studies show that living together before marriage increases the risk of divorce — by as much as 50%? Former cohabiters have higher levels of conflict, abuse and violence, plus overall lower levels of happiness.» Cohabitation, he contends, is «training for divorce.»

In his parish, he says, cohabiting couples who continue to live together must get married «in a small, quiet ceremony without flowers, music or gowns. Marriage is a couple´s natural and canonical right, but unless they separate and live apart, there´ll be no big traditional wedding. The big wedding would be a false sign.»

When Deacon Mann broke the news to Terrie and Steve, Terrie cried. Mann explained not only the sinful nature of cohabitation, but also its grave sociological risks. The couple said they needed time to think. They left the deacon´s office in stunned silence, carrying some literature about the dangers of cohabitation.

There are those who disagree with Monsignor Galeone´s and Deacon Mann´s position — and, indeed, with the magisterium´s — that cohabitation is intrinsically harmful. Secular marriage specialists often claim cohabitation can be, and often is, helpful. In fact, they say, with the 50% divorce rate, it´s a popular assumption that a «trial marriage» makes good sense.

So says Marshall Miller, who founded the national nonprofit organization called the Alternatives to Marriage Project with his domestic partner, Dorian Solot. Their organization is located in Massachusetts.

«The vast majority of couples we´ve talked to,» says Miller, «say that cohabitation was a really smart decision for them, for any number of reasons, including financial. … Living with someone is a way of getting to know what they are really like.»

They did acknowledge that the research is against them, but they insist, «Research shows that those who choose not to live together first tend to have more conservative views and are less likely to see divorce as an option. Therefore, that group has a lower divorce rate as a result of their values, not because they didn´t live together.»

Other marriage specialists hold that good marital communication skills are more important than whether or not the couple cohabits. Diane Sollee, LSW, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couple Education in Washington, D.C., wouldn´t see a need to advise a cohabiting couple to separate. «They won´t learn the necessary skills by being apart.»

Monsignor Galeone disagrees. «These positions evade the real issues,» he says. «These experts are putting the cart before the horse. The reality is that sexual communications pre-empt, forestall and overshadow the development of solid verbal skills.»

After their meeting with Deacon Mann, Steve and Terrie talked, wrestled with their consciences, and went over and over the literature he´d given them.

They surfed the Web and read recent sociological studies from several major secular universities, including «The Marriage Project» from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The findings were dismal. Cohabiters who married had substantially more divorce, instability, conflict, violence — and the women and children were always on the losing end. The Rutgers´ researchers concluded, «Living together is not a good way to prepare for marriage or to avoid divorce.»

It was an emotional time, remembers Terrie. «It´s a shock when you realize you´re doing wrong, especially when you didn´t think you were,» she said.

It was the scholarly evidence that initially convinced Steve and Terrie; then prayer and Scripture study converted their hearts. Love for each other and the desire to help each other do the right thing made them separate and put their sexual relationship on hold.

Terrie moved back into her parents´ home. «It was hard,» she remembers, «really hard.» Steve stayed at the apartment and the couple scooted their wedding date forward to May.

They spent five months living separately, going through marriage preparation, material on marital communication skills and a Pre-Cana weekend. They reflected, thought and dialogued more deeply than they´d ever done before, and explored their understanding of commitment, covenant and sacramental marriage.

«We ended up being glad we separated,» says Steve. «Because it was during that time that we really became best friends and learned to be intimate in nonsexual ways.»

They also discovered and fell in love with the Catholic view of sexuality and the necessity of marriage. Currently, they are using natural family planning.

James Healy, director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, and author of the «Couple´s Handbook» for cohabiting couples, explains that sexuality is a created gift and a spiritual mystery: «The Catholic community believes that persons who give themselves sexually to each other are offering not just an action, but the totality of their very lives. Ultimately, their dignity and honor as human persons can only be protected in a relationship that intends to be permanent, faithful and open to life.»

After a slow start, the five months seem to fly by. Then on May 26, 1990, Deacon Mann heard Steve and Terrie´s exchange of vows and Monsignor Galeone celebrated their nuptial Mass in a fine traditional Catholic wedding — complete with all the lace and flowers.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation