Often today if a man and woman want to get married, they first live together to see if they would be a good fit. To a lot of people, it makes sense to see if you are “compatible” before marriage, but really the opposite is true.
Why would cohabitation make marriage harder? Well, for Catholics, there are several reasons. The first reason is that cohabitation often involves sex outside of marriage, which is a sin. Sin means that we aren’t in right relation with God, and in this case it’s because we aren’t using our bodies the way God intended. How can we truly receive a Sacrament which allows God to dwell within us through grace, if we aren’t in right relationship with him?
“Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. The total physical self-giving would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of a total personal self-giving.” (Saint John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio 11
In Matrimony, the gift of your bodies is what completes the Sacrament. This exchange of persons is what seals the covenant. Since our bodies are the visible expression of our soul, the union of our bodies signifies the union of our souls. This is no longer about living together but about laying your life down for your spouse, becoming one in the ability to image God’s love and create new life. Outside of marriage, physical union is a lie because in the love that matrimony requires, you join every single aspect of your life with your spouse.
This brings us to the second reason that cohabitation makes marriage harder: the idea that marriage is just a legal formality. You were already living together, and now you’re making your relationship official by legalizing it. When we ask couples why they want to get married in the Church, the overwhelming response is because they get the Church’s blessing or approval. Many want to get married in the Church so the Church can give its blessing on their existing relationship. But that’s not the case since marriage takes your relationship to a whole new level! The blessing is a nice bonus, but the important part is establishing the covenant through a mutual gift of self. Through this gift you impart grace to each other, which helps you to grow in holiness.
Matrimony is a covenant – an exchange of persons that cannot be undone, and it also involves God. It’s more serious than a legal paper or even the Church’s blessing! It’s an unbreakable bond where the two become one, and cohabiting makes transitioning to that gift of self much harder.
The attitude of couples who cohabit is more independent than those who wait until marriage to live together. While most couples who cohabit generally have good intentions, at the root of living together is convenience. You can save money and split bills and see each other and sleep together, while still living your own life without any of the sacrifice that marriage requires. You can test out commitment without really committing, and therefore never really learn what commitment requires. Then, when you do “legalize” your relationship by getting married, a couple often still lives relatively independent lives and the idea of the permanence of the covenant does not translate over to the marriage:
While married persons generally value interdependence and the exchange of resources, cohabiters tend to value independence and economic equality. These values do not necessarily change just because a cohabiting couple decides to move into marriage. (Clarkberg, Stolzenberg & Waite; Waite & Joyner; Bumpass, Sweet & Cherlin)
For example, I had a couple in Marriage Prep who were very happy with their living situation. They split the bills, had their own finances, their own friends and activities, and then came back home to each other and life was good. We tried to explain to them that although their situation works for them now, marriage is different. Matrimony, according to the Catechsim of the Catholic Church 1601, is a “covenant by which man and woman establish a lifelong partnership.” Instead of splitting everything down the middle, you have everything in common. Your debts and savings are theirs, and vice versa. When you have kids, you don’t think about splitting who pays for their clothes and who puts them to bed at night. You also let your spouse know about your social activities and plan your calendars together. In marriage, you share everything because “the two become one flesh.”
So often, then, those who cohabit fail to transition to the self-gift of the covenant. They still live their separate lives with the same name under the same roof. There is no laying your life down for the other, no intimate sharing of spiritual desires and movements of the hearts. Often there is no practice of NFP, which would strengthen virtue and increase communication. Often there is no sharing of finances, and did you know that couples with separate bank accounts are 145% more likely to get divorced?
Also, just because life is good now doesn’t mean that it will stay that way in marriage. Cohabitation does not test out the areas that typically stress a marriage: “They didn’t pay a mortgage, try to get pregnant, get up in the night with kids, spend holidays with in-laws when they didn’t want to, save for college and retirement, or see each other’s paychecks and credit-card bills.” (Meg Jay, Defining the Decade). So in reality, cohabitation can’t predict how successful a marriage will be when the stakes aren’t the same.
Finally, CCC 1603 calls marriage an “intimate community of life and love.” This means more than sharing a bed, an address, a last name, or bills. This means vulnerability in admitting weakness, helping each other to develop good habits and virtue, and cultivating a strong prayer life. This intimate community usually involves children, since one of the requirements of matrimony is openness to fertility. It means that marriage is ordered toward the good of spouses, and the ultimate good is heaven.
God knows the desires of our hearts because he created them. He knows we desire permanence, commitment, love, and sacrifice. So when we follow his plan for Matrimony and wait to live and sleep together, we are more likely to have a lifelong, joy-filled marriage.
For more on this topic, you can check out this book by Glenn Stanton:
The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage