By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JUNE 30, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Living together before marriage is a very common practice for couples in many countries. Many defend it on the basis that it enables the future husband and wife to get to know each other better.
Abundant evidence exists, however, that cohabitation is more of an obstacle rather than an advantage in preparing for marriage. Michael and Harriet McManus recently published “Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers (Howard Books), which documents their research on the topic.
The authors, founders of the organization Marriage Savers, warn that couples who cohabit before marriage are much more likely to divorce afterward. There is a big difference, they say, between a permanent bond such as marriage and just living together in a conditional relationship.
Typically in cohabitation the two individuals are more concerned on obtaining satisfaction from the other person, they write. In marriage, by contrast, spouses tend to focus more on giving satisfaction to the other person.
One major problem with cohabitation, the book explains, is that the two partners often start living together for very different motives. While many women look upon it as a stepping-stone to marriage, men often look at it for convenience, and not as a firm commitment.
Furthermore, the authors cite studies showing that typically cohabitation is not a fifty-fifty division of expenses and burdens. Women tend to contribute more, both in terms of money and in domestic work.
Numerous recent studies also demonstrate that physical attacks against women are much more common among cohabiting couples than among married couples. Serious violence and murder are also more prevalent among couples who are not married.
Another concern is the welfare of children. Michael and Harriet McManus point out that 41% of cohabiting U.S. couples in 2003 had children under 18 years of age living with them.
Children of couples living together without being married are at a serious disadvantage. Compared to children of married couples, they have higher rates of delinquency, they do worse at school, and suffer psychologically from the unstable home environment.
Further detailed information on the perils of cohabitation came in a report published in June by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. Authored by family and marriage expert David Popenoe, the study titled “Cohabitation, Marriage and child Wellbeing: A Cross-National Perspective” starts by stating: “No family change has come to the fore in modern times more dramatically, and with such rapidity, as heterosexual cohabitation outside of marriage.”
Popenoe cited data showing that in the United States figures from 2002 show that over 50% of women aged 19 to 44 had cohabited for a portion of their lives. As cohabitation rates have skyrocketed, marriage rates have plummeted, he added.
“Yet cohabitation in place of marriage should be considered a major societal concern,” Popenoe warned. He explained that an abundance of research shows clear benefits for married couples, who are normally happier, healthier and economically better off.
Research also points to a significant reduction in these benefits if a couple is only living together and are not married.
Popenoe agreed with the McManus book concerning the disadvantages of cohabitation for children. Given that cohabiting couples break up at a higher rate compared to married couples, this brings with it more stress and disruption for children. Higher rates of child abuse and family violence also bring problems for kids.
This disadvantage for children, Popenoe commented, also has a lot to do with the major trend in family patterns in past years with the shift of child rearing from married parents to single parents, mostly mothers. In a number of countries the chances are now better than fifty-fifty that a child will spend some time living with just one parent before reaching adulthood.
Single parenthood stems both from unwed births and from parental breakup after birth. Cohabitation is a factor in spurring higher parenthood due to births to couples not married. It is also responsible due to the higher breakup rate for cohabiting couples who have children — which is more than twice what it is for married couples with children.
Popenoe tied in the higher break-up rate to the lack of commitment in cohabiting couples, a point also mentioned in the McManus book. Cohabiting partners, he said, “tend to have a weaker sense of couple identity, less willingness to sacrifice for the other, and a lower desire to see the relationship go long term.”
He cited one study carried out in the United States that calculated cohabiting couples break up at a rate five times higher than for married couples.
Popenoe also looked at the situation in Europe, where cohabitation is even more prevalent than in the United States. In Northern and Central Europe, plus the United Kingdom, more than 90% of couples live together before marriage.
In general, Popenoe commented, just about all these countries, plus others such as Australia and New Zealand, are heading in the direction of the high cohabitation rates found in Scandinavia.
In response to these changes many governments have introduced varying forms of legislation to recognize partnerships that give a series of legal benefits to couples who register their relationship.
It is still not clear, he observed, whether legislation is merely following social changes, or if it has itself also fostered the growth of cohabitation. It is likely, however, Popenoe opined, that giving legal recognition to cohabitation will weaken the status of marriage.
“There can be no doubt that the rise of non-marital cohabitation in modern nations has seriously weakened the institution of marriage, and strongly contributed to substantial and continuing increases in unwed births and lone-parent families,” Popenoe concluded at the end of his analysis.
From the point of view of the welfare of society and of children cohabitation is of little benefit, he argued. Even in some European countries with very well-financed welfare systems that support children there is still a substantial gap in child well-being between children who grow up in intact families and those who do not.
Marriage and the family were one of the topics examined by Benedict XVI in his recent visit to the United States. During the celebration of vespers with bishops on April 16 the Pope noted his “deep concern” over the state of the family.
The Pontiff commented that family life makes is not only where we can live the experience of justice and love, but that it is also the primary place for evangelization and passing on the faith.
He noted that in addition to an increase in divorce, many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or forego it.
“To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person,” the Holy Father observed.
“[T]he Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment,” is lacking in cohabitation, he added.
“In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and moral focus of the community are to be maintained,” Benedict XVI concluded. Problems that many countries around the world are struggling to deal with.