The entertainment industry does exceptionally well in highlighting the advantages and thrills of falling in love. What it doesn’t do so well is to give people clues as to how to stay in love. This shouldn’t surprise us because falling in love is a lot of fun and it doesn’t take a lot of work. But this one-sided emphasis on the hormonal and emotional phase of love – while overlooking the sacrifices and graces necessary to sustain a relationship – is a recipe for disaster; both for couples and society at large. Perhaps, this is why more people in recent years are giving up on marriage altogether.
Anne-Marie Ambert, in her article “Cohabitation and Marriage: How are they related?” reviewed several Canadian and American studies on cohabitation and marriage rates. She wrote, “While cohabitation rates have shot up in the past decade or so, marriage rates have come down substantially.”
“More recent trends,” she continues, “indicate that perhaps a higher proportion of cohabiters than in the past simply drift into cohabitation because it is more convenient than dating. That is, it makes it easier to be with each other sexually than when living separately.” Surprisingly, cohabitation is not only becoming an attractive alternative to marriage, but it is slowly becoming a form of dating.
This shouldn’t surprise us because Hollywood and public education – two very powerful forces in America – do not hold up, for imitation, those virtues and beliefs that make for a lifelong marriage. Yet, it is undeniably true that people who are married and are in it for the long haul are much happier than cohabiters who run from partner to partner. To be sure, the latter is like a bird in flight without a nest.
People who go from partner to partner may accumulate many falling-in-love experiences, but they never reach the purpose for which the phenomenon of falling-in-love exists. For many, the falling-in-love experience and the sexual thrills that accompany it exist for its own sake. This is why they feel the need to reproduce as many of these experiences as possible. But this kind of indulgence is nothing new.
In the first century, for instance, the Gospel of John suggests that the Samaritan woman at the well was a cohabiter. Indeed, our Lord even called her on it, saying, “For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
St. Paul, too, spoke about those restless souls who never settle down in marriage. Specifically, he cautioned St. Timothy about lovers of the flesh and explained that in the latter days women will be especially vulnerable to the sexual exploits of men. He said, “For some of these slip into homes and make captives of women weighed down by sins, led by various desires, always trying to learn but never able to reach a knowledge of the truth.” (II Timothy 3:6-7) The truth about what? you might ask. The truth about how relationships and sexuality can build us up or tear us down.
Cohabitation plays right into the Hollywood narrative that the only thing worth pursuing is the experience or the falling-in-love process. It does not inspire a true and lasting love of the person. It can even be said that it fosters an entitlement mentality because, by its very nature, “shacking-up” seeks to obtain the perks or the fruits of marriage (i.e. living together and sex) without the love, sacrifice and patience it takes to merit such benefits.
Not too long ago, the man was expected to court the woman; to earn her affection and self-disclosure. He was to “put in his time” before she rewarded him with herself. And it wasn’t until he made a public and sacred commitment to her before God and the community that he would enjoy her intimacy.
However, with cohabitation, no such chivalry is warranted. In fact, earning the love of the beloved is discouraged. It is like saying the wage-earner no longer has to earn his wages; or that the med-student should be permitted to practice medicine before he graduates from med school; or it can be likened to an NFL franchise signing up football players who never tried out and hence proved that they are qualified to play in the big league. To put it simply, cohabitation turns the natural order of love and marriage on its head.
What is more, just when a man and a woman ought to be discerning whether or not they are compatible with each other, they cloud their own judgment by strengthening their sexual ties. In Proverbs, it says, “Lust indulged starves the soul…” (13:19) To put it another way, lust has a blinding effect upon our perception of reality. But in order to detect red flags or problem spots in the relationship there has to be a sense of detachment and objectivity.
It just so happens that sexual purity provides that needed clarity and objectivity. As such, the prospective spouse is much more likely to be seen for what he or she really is. It is for this reason that sexual purity or chastity better serves the purpose of dating than does cohabitation.
Communicating the perils of cohabitation and the stability that marriage affords couples is taking on a great sense of urgency. Marriage rates have dropped dramatically in many dioceses and in the greater part of society. Moreover, the practice of cohabitation has gone through the roof.
Recall that the vocations to the priesthood and religious life took a big hit in the 1970s. But the hit that the vocation of marriage is taking now, by all appearances, is even bigger. And just as the consequences of the sudden drop in priestly vocations in the 1970s was difficult to anticipate (i.e. one priest overseeing 3-5 parishes), likewise, the effects of the sudden drop in marriage vocations will be equally difficult to foresee. But we do know the effects will not be good. As Pope Leo XIII said, "The family is the cradle of civil society, and it is largely within the confines of the domestic hearth that is prepared the destiny of nations."
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.