A Just Response to Cohabitation

As I addressed in an earlier article, cohabitation is one of the leading cultural assaults on the institution of marriage. What was once a great scandal and derided as “shacking up” is now accepted as the norm.

The physical, psychological and emotional dangers of cohabitation have been clearly outlined by writers as diverse as Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute to Dr. Sharon Sassler writing in the pages of the New York Times.

Those who cohabitate suffer more depression, are more often victims of domestic violence, and report a poorer quality of relationship than do their married counterparts. Marriages that are preceded by cohabitation are more likely to end in divorce. That is why I am always saddened to see the adult children of family and friends casually move in with a boyfriend or girlfriend with little regard for the damage they are doing to marriage in general and to their future marriages in particular.

In response to this growing trend, several years ago the pastor of my parish instituted a policy that requires those who wish to have a formal wedding with all the flourishes to live apart for at least three months prior to the wedding. Those who are cohabitating may still be married in the church, but it will be a simple ceremony. There will be no procession, no string of bridesmaids, no special music, and no Mass. They are welcome to invite friends to the ceremony, but it will be so simple that a rehearsal is unnecessary.

When I have relayed this policy to others, I am often met with incredulous stares and responses like “How unfair!” or “That will drive young people from the Church!”

What such responses fail to appreciate is that this policy is actually more just than turning a blind eye to cohabitation. It is true that the bride who chooses to cohabitate before marriage will be denied the dream wedding she has been visualizing for years. But what about the bride and groom who respect the dignity of marriage and wait until after the wedding to live as husband and wife? Should not the Church differentiate their wedding from those who make a mockery of marriage by cohabitation?

My pastor is not denying the Sacrament of Matrimony to anyone. He is acknowledging that the full Nuptial Mass is a grand and solemn celebration to mark a transition in the lives of the couple. It is only fair to recognize the very real and distinct differences between those who make this transition after the wedding and those who make it before the wedding.

I have no doubt that many couples, who would like to be married in our parish, but are cohabitating wander down the road to a parish that is less restrictive in its wedding policies. It is truly unfortunate that more priests do not have the courage to face the problem of cohabitation head on and there is definitely no doubt they will need courage.

Parishioners may very well leave the parish, threaten to withhold financial contributions, or call the bishop to complain about such a policy. Many a mother-of-the-bride has been mentally planning her daughter’s wedding since the day she was born. A priest risks the wrath of such a mother when he tells her that imagined wedding is not going to happen because her daughter has chosen to cohabitate. Hopefully, bishops will universally support their priests who stand firm in their defense of marriage.

Clergy cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden of defending marriage. It is crucial for parents to actively join the opposition to cohabitation. This is not an easy task and it takes both great faith and grace.

How many parents are willing to look their daughter in the eye and tell her that if she eschews marriage to move in with her boyfriend, there will be no long white dress or a wedding with all the trimmings?

Do we love our children enough and care about their eternal salvation enough to tell them in no uncertain terms that cohabitation is an affront to the true nature of marriage and we will not ignore this with support for a lavish wedding?

In his encyclical on marriage, Arcanum, Pope Leo XIII did not mince any words on the seriousness of the sin of cohabitation:

We well know that none should be excluded from Our charity, We commend, venerable brothers, to your fidelity and piety those unhappy persons who, carried away by the heat of passion, and being utterly indifferent to their salvation, live wickedly together without the bond of lawful marriage. Let your utmost care be exercised in bringing such persons back to their duty; and, both by your own efforts and by those of good men who will consent to help you, strive by every means that they may see how wrongly they have acted; that they may do penance; and that they may be induced to enter into a lawful marriage according to the Catholic rite.

It is time that we take Pope Leo XII’s words to heart. We cannot afford to be complacent about the dangers cohabitation poses both to individual marriages and to the institution of marriage as a whole.

The wedding industry has sold us on all the secular party accoutrements attached to contemporary marriages, but a Catholic wedding needs to reflect Church teaching about marriage.

Charity demands that cohabitating couples be told of the risks and consequences of their choice. Those who publicly and flagrantly depart from Church teaching should not then expect the Church to celebrate their wedding in the same fashion as those who are faithfully obedient to Church teaching. Failure to make such a distinction demeans marriage and is an injustice to those who wait.

Dr. Denise Jackson Hunnell is a Fellow of Human Life International. She graduated from Rice University with a BA in biochemistry and psychology. She earned her medical degree from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. She went on to complete a residency in family medicine at Marquette General Hospital, Marquette, Michigan. Upon completion of her training, Dr. Hunnell served as a family physician in the United States Air Force. She was honorably discharged. She continued to practice medicine all over the country as her husband’s Air Force career kept them on the move. In order to better care for her family, Dr. Hunnell retired from active clinical practice and focused her professional efforts on writing and teaching. She has contributed work to local and national Catholic publications as well as to secular newspapers including the Washington Post and the Washington Times. She also teaches anatomy and physiology at Northern Virginia Community College Woodbridge Campus. Dr. Hunnell serves as an elected member of the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Other affiliations include the American Academy of Family Physicians, The Catholic Medical Association, and the National Catholic Bioethics Center. She received her certification in health care ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 2009. Dr. Hunnell has been married for nearly thirty years to Colonel (ret) John F. Hunnell, an Air Force test pilot. They have four children and are blessed with three grandchildren so far.
Articles by Denise:

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  • James Toups

    Bravo! I agree. We have four daughters. We have told them this as early as they can remember. There is a proper order. If they decide to do things out of order no big wedding. Our first gets married in October. I am blessed to say a nice big wedding.

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  • Kathy K

    What a fabulous policy! I’m passing it on to our parish priests and one of our bishops.

  • Kim

    Great article…good to have things like this to print out and share with others. It is nice to know my husband and I are not alone in our thinking about these kinds of things and good to see some ideas from others on how to encourage our children to make the right decisions!

  • Charbel El-chaar

    Cohabitation: is a sin

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  • Monica Richardson

    A “just” response, really? The data cited in this article is outdated and incorrect. From 2006 to 2010, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked for trends in first marriages. Cohabitation is no longer playing as big of a role in divorce rates as it once did. Hunnell completely ignores other factors associated with divorce, such as age at first marriage, education and ethnic background. A more balanced article can be found at:

    • D Hunnell

      I stand by the facts presented in this article. Nowhere did I state that cohabitation is the only factor contributing to the increased divorce rate. And the point of this article is not that cohabitation contributes to divorce. Rather, the issue is what do Catholics believe about cohabitation and marriage and do Catholic weddings reflect this belief. Catholics who faithfully wait until after the wedding to live together should be supported and encouraged by celebrating their wedding with the full Nuptial Mass. It is an injustice to these Catholics to make no distinction between their faithful preparation and those who flagrantly flout Church teaching by cohabitating before marriage. It also sends a mixed message about Church teaching on marriage and undermines the dignity of marriage to equate cohabitating couples with those who wait until after the wedding to live as a married couple.

      • Leslie Alexander

        well said and thanks for saying it.

  • Leslie Alexander

    I just sent this to my bishop and to my pastor in Lafayette, LA.

  • Augustine

    Having been there done that in regards to cohabitation, I can honestly say that I would never advise a couple to go this route. It is truly a selfish existence shrouded in the appearance of being a couple. There is lack of genuine intimacy as no soulful commitment has been made. I commend your parish priest. May more priests man up and defend the sacrament. May more men man up and treat their future spouse and mother of their children with the dignity and respect they deserve. May more women grow a spine and tell men to take a hike when they try to pressure them into such relationships.