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Do spouses have to remain living together no matter what?

Anna Krestyn - published on 02/21/13

The Church is against divorce, but allows for spousal separation if its needed

Sacramental marriage is a permanent earthly bond between man and woman. If a marriage has occurred, its very nature would make it such that divorce is simply impossible. “The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it – ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1614).

 Though, while the Church is pretty clear about the unlawfulness of divorce, separation (which can include civil divorce) is a more nuanced matter. Separation between spouses is substantially different from divorce in that the marriage itself is still recognized, even though there may be serious hindrances to full communion between the spouses.

The Catechism is clear about the permissibility of separation in some cases:

“Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond, which remains indissoluble” (CCC 1649).

The Church’s first concern is always the well-being of the whole family, and it acknowledges that reconciliation, where possible, is always the best solution to marital conflict. This is because marriage is a great good and a very serious vow, and great damage is likely whenever it is compromised.

The Church does acknowledge that, due to the nature of some problems (serious physical danger, adultery, alcoholism, certain personality disorders, etc.), separation is sometimes necessary. The reasons for separation must always be grave enough to warrant it. The Church's Code of Canon Law specifies that a couple may be compelled to separate or even civilly divorce (though the marriage would remain valid as a sacrament) when circumstances are such that they cause “serious danger of spirit or body to the spouse or the children, or otherwise render common life too hard” (cf. #1153.1).

 When their marriage is in trouble, couples should consult their parish priest or another priest with whom they have established a rapport in order to sort through the difficulties, discerning either the possibility of reconciliation or the need for separation. God does not forget his children in their distress, and through his Church he reaches down to support them in these difficult situations.

The Church provides many resources for couples experiencing problems, including Retrouvaille, For Your Marriage, and many programs run through diocesan retreat centers.  Monasteries and convents often supply spiritual direction as well.  The Church encourages couples experiencing difficulties not to hide their problems but to seek help.  This, in itself, is a spiritual work that can bear great fruit.  

Never confuse spirituality with submitting to physical absue, however.  The body is God's temple and under no circumstances is it God's will for anyone to suffer physical abuse.  

Studies indicate that couples who experience crises in their marriage and choose to remain together are often happier five years later than those who choose to divorce.  

Have you experienced difficulties yourself and overcome them? If you want to share something that could help our readers, please add your comment below.  


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