Many people today are becoming more used to the trend of cohabitation or the act of a couple living together without being married. Even of those getting married, the common occurrence is to ‘test’ the relationship by moving in with each other before engagement or taking vows. This trial period is seen as prudent because it gives the couple some experience with the habits of the other that are not obvious without being in close, and often intimate, contact. Couples share beds, but many will still separate from their partner some things that they are not yet ready to share, like monetary problems, credit card debt, and family of origin issues.
Just as many are aware of the rising trend of cohabitation in society, so too are they aware or could guess the position of the Church on the matter. Many Catholics think they know what the Church believes about it and why. I would hazard to guess most would be correct about the former (what the Church believes), but unsure of the latter (why the Church teaches cohabitation is detrimental to marriage).
“Human love does not tolerate “trial marriages.” It demands a total and definitive gift of persons to one another.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2391
Now before you get the wrong idea, the Catholic Church is not out to control anyone’s life; far from it. Instead, the Church serves as the mouthpiece for God and the common sense of humankind. Our theology informs us of the “two becoming one flesh” through a ceremony where man and woman are covenanted to each other in the presence of God. Just as we have our marching orders from the Almighty on his expectations of how we are to live, we also have our God-given common sense and reason to use, and use it we must.
The expectation of marriage by God has at its base, an expectation of providing and symbolizing the same kind of love that He has for us. God united himself to us in a perfect way by completely loving us, offering Himself as a total and definitive gift. To God, love is not merely an excited attraction or heightened appreciation for a person, but a purposeful act of recognizing his or her inherent value. A person, we all know, is more than flesh and blood. There are emotions and thoughts to acknowledge too. God gave himself to us in Jesus by giving to us his body, mind and spirit. He gave his whole person to us. So, in marriage we are called to give our whole person to our spouse. By giving everything, we too are united in a perfect union with God and our spouse.
But can we not have this perfect union without marriage? We share our home, time and bodies, isn’t that the same? What’s missing? It’s true you share these things when cohabitating but you do not have a fully consenting person, as the Church understands persons and consent. In a cohabitating relationship, you’re not saying ‘no’ but you’re not quite yet saying ‘yes’ either, are you? Are you saying you’ve given your whole person – body, mind and spirit – to the other’s whole person – body, mind and spirit? I think that’s the point of why God expects us to be married. He doesn’t like us performing half-measures in faith, so I suppose he has the same expectations in the other parts of our life.
In a perfect union, we pour ourselves out for the other person by sacrificing and sharing everything we hold dear. Our consent takes on the form of a sacrifice, by offering all we are to the other. Through this mutual offering, we share in goods, emotions, and experiences. Our percentage of give and receive in marriage is not 50/50 but 100/100. Everything must be for and about the other; otherwise we’re not giving them what the other deserves: our whole person. Our theology and reason inform us that this is the right thing to do.
So is there some magic ingredient for a life-long marriage? If you do a certain number of things can you be assured of always staying together in the same bliss with which the two of you started your relationship? The context and emotions of a relationship change with time and experience, yet the call to adhere to that consent of offering the whole person to the other remains. Jobs may come and go, homes may change, loved ones may age or even pass, but the commitment and dedication to continually pour out all of yourself will continue throughout your relationship. Those moments that we do not consent and share ourselves are dangerous because the love that we are to channel to the beloved stops at the face in the mirror. We must be dedicated to offer our whole person especially in those times when we do not want to, because in that moment we are sacrificing not only ourselves but our pride for the other person.
A word of encouragement before we close, if you know a couple who is living together and not married, help them reflect on the reality that they are not totally committed to each other and that means they are not yet able to give themselves totally and definitively to each other. If they are sharing a bed, charitably ask them to consider stopping until their wedding night when they can give each other ‘all’ that they possess. The Church does not doubt their affection or their love for each other; God just wants to give each person the protection and consent to be loved to their fullest potential. Don’t merely think that the Church says “it’s wrong,” but that the Church is saying “it could be so more right.”