Thinking through the temptation of cohabitation

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Men and women clearly need each other and naturally gravitate towards arrangements of mutual support and lives of shared intimacy. Because women are frequently the immediate guardians of the next generation, they have a particular need to ascertain if there will be steady support from a man prior to giving themselves sexually to him. The bond of marriage is ordered towards securing this critical element of ongoing commitment and support. Cohabitation, where a man and woman decide to live together and engage in sexual relations without marriage, raises a host of issues and concerns. Sex, of course, has a certain power all its own, and both sides may be tempted to play with it in ways that are potentially damaging, all the more so when they decide to cohabit.

One concern is that cohabitation can often become a rehearsal for various selfish patterns of behavior. It perpetuates an arrangement of convenience, popularly phrased as, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Even as many women try to tell themselves they are “preparing” for marriage by cohabiting with their partner, they may sense the trap of the “never ending audition” to be his wife, and become intuitively aware of how they are being used. Cohabitation also invites the woman to focus on lesser concerns like saving on rent or garnering transient emotional attention from her partner by moving in with him and becoming sexually available.

Even as a woman becomes attuned to the power of sex from an early age, she can eventually fall prey to an easy mistake. Aware that sexual intimacy is also about bonding, she may suppose that by surrendering this deeply personal part of herself through cohabitation, she now has a “hook” into a man and his heart. While such an arrangement can trigger various platitudes, (that he “cares for her,” “loves her”, etc.), experience shows it doesn’t typically help him reach the commitment reflected in those all-important words, “Will you marry me?”

Cohabitation, in fact, is a relationship that is defined by a holding back of commitment. The notion that it somehow allows both parties to “try out” a marriage beforehand is conveniently make-believe, a kind of “playing house,” mostly because it’s impossible to try out something permanent and irrevocable through something temporary and revocable. As Jennifer Roback Morse has described it, “Cohabiting couples are likely to have one foot out the door, throughout the relationship. The members of a cohabiting couple practice holding back on one another. They rehearse not trusting.” They don’t develop the elements crucial to a successful marriage, but instead keep their options open so they can always beat a hasty retreat to the exit. Or as Chuck Colson has put it: “Cohabitation — it’s training for divorce.” Many studies confirm that the divorce rate among those who cohabit prior to marriage is nearly double the rate of those who marry without prior cohabitation.

Some researchers believe that individuals who cohabit are more unconventional to begin with, being less committed to the institution of marriage overall and more open to the possibility of divorce. Others suspect something more insidious — that living together slowly erodes people’s ability to make a commitment by setting them up into patterns of behavior that work against succeeding in a long-term relationship. Both may actually be true.

Various risks correlate strongly with cohabitation. Compared with a married woman, a cohabiting woman is roughly three times as likely to experience physical abuse, and about nine times more likely to be murdered. Children also tend to fare poorly when it comes to these live-in arrangements. Rates of serious child abuse have been found to be lowest in intact families; six times higher in step families; 20 times higher in cohabiting biological-parent families; and 33 times higher when the mother is cohabiting with a boyfriend who is not the biological father. Cohabiting homes see significantly more drug and alcohol abuse, and bring in less income than their married peers. Cohabitation is clearly bad for men, worse for women, and terrible for children.

“Marriage,” as Glenn Stanton notes, “is actually a very pro-woman institution. People don’t fully realize what a raw deal for women cohabitation is. Women tend to bring more goods to the relationship—more work, more effort in tending to the relationship—but they get less satisfaction in terms of relational commitment and security.” While marriage doesn’t automatically solve every problem, it clearly offers a different and vastly better set of dynamics than cohabitation for all the parties involved.

COMING UP: Catholic Millennials in the digital age: How do I date?!

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Catholic millennials struggle with dating.

Somewhere between trying to avoid an aggressive “hookup culture” – short-termed casual flings focused on physical intimacy without the commitment – and dating with the intention of finding their spouse, their challenges are uniquely nuanced from previous generations. Where their parents or grandparents married at younger ages, this generation finds itself marrying much later, if at all.

Generally, well-formed Catholic young adults try to avoid “hooking up” but find themselves unsure of what to do instead. So, often a dating paralysis sets in, where single men don’t ask women out and both men and women passively wait for someone to magically fall from the sky.

Finding a spouse has always been simple (not to be confused with easy) – and it may have been simpler in the past. But if young people are willing to overcome their dating challenges, good and holy marriages can and do happen.

Going online

One problem this generation faces is meeting other like-minded people. While meetings still happen, balancing time between work and relationships plays a factor into the dating culture, and for some, the solution can be online dating.

But this in of itself proves a challenge for Catholic millennials, too. There’s still a nostalgia of having a romanticized story, and meeting someone online doesn’t sound all that idealistic. Online dating also has a stigma: some perceive turning to the worldwide web in the search of someone to love as desperation.

“It shouldn’t have the stigma that it does. We do everything else online, and if you’re not in college, you’re not around like-minded people your age as much. Meeting people is hard, and meeting at a bar kind of falls in with the hookup culture,” said Jacob Machado, who briefly used the online dating site, CatholicMatch. “If we’ve discerned our vocation and we’re confident in it, we should be actively pursuing it. But even knowing that, I still feel uncomfortable.”

Just a tool

Annie Crouch, who’s used CatholicMatch, as well as other dating apps, thinks that it can be either a good tool or a frustration, depending on its use.

“I think it’s good. [But] it can be used poorly, it can encourage non-commitment, and you can start to see them as not a person…if we’re not careful,” Annie said.

“There are two types of people at young adult Catholic events: people who are looking for their spouse, and people who aren’t honest enough to admit that they’re looking for their spouse.”

One of the cons, Annie said, is that it can become too easy to de-humanize people online with the availability of so many options for matches. She admitted that it’s become so easy to filter through matches without even reading their bios, “reducing people to their looks” – but being aware of that tendency helps counter it.

Jacob also agreed that the perception of too many options to choose from can paralyze people from committing to relationships. With so much at our fingertips, browsing for a date online can indeed become “dehumanizing.”

“It’s not inherently bad, it’s how you use it,” Jacob said.

Make the leap

Another challenge millennials face is making the jump from the digital sphere to human interaction. While it’s really easy to strike up a conversation with someone online, and even feels less risky so that more people are comfortable doing it, “at some point, you have to be intentional and make a move,” Jacob said.

Annie agreed that media can only go so far to help relationships.

“[I think it’s important] to realize that it can only go so far, and not using it as a crutch…make sure you’re not replacing [in-person interaction]. Follow through and go out with people, and put yourself out there,” Annie said.

Embrace your desire

But even in-person interactions seem to suffer from a similar paralysis. Both Annie and Jacob recognized that many Catholic singles seem to be ashamed of or shy about their desire for marriage and a family, which stunts young people from asking each other out on dates.

“There are two types of people at young adult Catholic events: people who are looking for their spouse, and people who aren’t honest enough to admit that they’re looking for their spouse,” Machado said.

Many men and women desire their vocation – so what’s the holdup?

Close up of a man using mobile smart phone

In the digital age, some Catholic millennials struggle with dating. (Stock photo)

“The big opposition with dating is that guys don’t ask anyone out, or a guy asks someone out and everyone thinks he’s weird,” Annie said. “We’re afraid of coming off too strong…we’re embarrassed to admit that we want marriage and children. That adds a lot of pressure.”

Still, despite a seeming lack of Catholic singles with a courageous dating mindset, good marriages are still being made.

Just ask the girl

Newlyweds Mark and Brianne Westhoff, who met in college but didn’t start dating until several years after, struggled with dating paralysis before reconnecting with each other.

“This was something I experienced…I don’t know what else to call it beyond over-discernment…because [the vocation] is so important, people can become paralyzed,” Mark said. “At least for guys, they’d say, ‘Should I ask her out?’ and then wait six weeks and pray novenas. They ask God before even asking her. The order should be, trust God’s movement, then I’ll respond, see what I learn and see what changes.”

Brianne, like many other Catholic single women, was hardly asked out before Mark. The paralysis, they both agreed, stems from Catholic millennials not working with what God puts in front of them.

“[A big challenge for millennials] is not being in touch with reality. There’s a lack of trust that what is happening is reality,” Brianne said. “We don’t see reality as an actual, concrete thing that is good for me.”

The answer to this inactivity? Two parts, acting and trusting. Relationships can’t be forced, but singles also shouldn’t wait around passively, either.

“Ask her out on a real date,” Mark said. “If it’s not good, then that’s fine. You’re not asking her to marry you by asking her out.”

“Be hopeful and understand that God acts and that we can’t force it,” Mark continued. “But don’t be paralyzed by that…we have to act ourselves as well. And trust. Trust whatever is happening in reality and act on what is in front of you.”