Father Brian O’Brien, a priest of the Diocese of Tulsa in Oklahoma, told CNA that the statistics presented in the IFS study are confirmed by his experience working in marriage preparation for 11 years. He said he often presents statistics to the couples he counsels, to try to help explain how premarital cohabitation and premarital sex can negatively affect the happiness of their marriage.
"Ultimately it comes down to: we're not meant to be used," O’Brien told CNA.
"I think what happens in a lot of cases is [people think]: 'I'll just sleep with a whole bunch of people, and maybe one of them will work out.' And that's exactly what happens in the movies...but the idea that you can just use somebody and move on as if that didn't happen, I think is where the unhappiness sets in."
People will remember the sexual partners that they had "along the way," because sex bonds people together, he said. A bond with a person who is no longer in a person's life will remain with them even if they start a new relationship, leaving a "lingering guilt," "unresolved issues," and “baggage” that makes new relationships that much more difficult.
"Marriage is hard enough, and it's even harder if you're bringing in a bunch of baggage," he said. “For couples that are going to enter into a marriage covenant, everything should be on the table.”
O’Brien said that the broader trend in society of couples coming into marriage with multiple sexual partners, as evidenced by statistics cited in the IFS study, has also manifested itself among the couples he counsels.
"I go into [marriage prep] assuming, until I talk to them, that the couple is probably living together, and I assume that they are sexually active," O’Brien said.
"I tell [couples] that I want their marriage to be as happy and holy as possible, and your marriage will be happier and holier if you abstain from sex and if you don't live together.”
O'Brien said he thinks most couples who are living together know what they're doing is wrong, especially when it comes to being sexually active. He said he suspects that there are many couples that don't see anything wrong with cohabitation before marriage, viewing the move primarily as an economic decision.
"It's not that they're sort of 'trying each other out,' it's that 'we don't want to pay two rents,'" O'Brien explained. "So I think in that way they're not really flaunting Church teaching, they're trying to make good economic decisions."
He said he takes a pastoral approach to the couple’s situation, affirming them in their good decisions and “meeting them where they are.”
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"If they're not living together, and they're not sexually active, it's my chance to say: "Awesome! Great job!" and to really affirm them in those decisions," he said.
He said generally in the second or third marriage prep meeting, he'll ask some basic information such as the couple's home address. If the couple is already living together, they will often admit it at that point, if reluctantly.
"They'll look at each other like: 'Oh no. Should we give him the same address?' And as soon as they do that, I'll ask 'So do you guys live at the same place?' And they have this guilty look on their face, and they'll say yes," O'Brien said.
"And I’ll say: 'Ok, I'm not yelling at you, but obviously you guys feel bad about it.' So then we'll kind of take that and discuss it as we go."
O'Brien said despite popular opinion that may suggest that fewer people are seeking marriage in the Catholic Church, he and his fellow priests in Oklahoma are engaged in marriage prep and presiding at weddings "all the time."
"I'm not ready to throw in the towel on the young people of the Church," he said. "Because I think there really is a desire to have God as part of their marriage, and they're not finding that in other places."