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Most Synod Fathers Seemed Unaware of the Serious Risks of Cohabitation

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Rick Fitzgibbons, MD - published on 11/10/14

Studies report 13 risks of cohabitation for couples (not counting risks to children).

The work of the Synod on the Family would be helped by a greater knowledge of psychological science with respect to vital issues affecting the Catholic family, including cohabitation, divorce, the resolution of marital conflicts, and homosexuality. Cohabitation will be the focus of this article.

Interim and Final Reports of the Extraordinary Synod on Cohabitation

The Synod’s interim report recommended that the Church appreciate the positive values present in cohabiting relationships rather than addressing the limitations and shortcomings of such unions, and recommended further that the Church be attentive to the constructive elements in situations that do not yet, or no longer, correspond to that ideal.

The final report retained the following passage, which received a vote of 125 in favor and 54 opposed:

A new element in today’s pastoral activity is a sensitivity to the positive aspects of civilly celebrated marriages and, with obvious differences, cohabitation. While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to it (no. 41).

The mental health literature demonstrates few, if any, “constructive elements in these situations." To the contrary, studies show that cohabitation presents a serious threat to the likelihood of later marital stability and happiness, as well as to the psychological health of children born into such unions. Most young adults and their parents, as well as the Fathers of the Synod who wrote the interim report – and those who approved paragraph 41 of the final report – appear to be unaware of the extensive literature on the dangers of cohabitation.

This article summarizes some of the many studies finding serious risks to cohabiting adults. Tomorrow we’ll look at the results of studies on cohabitation’s impact on children, whose well-being depends on stable, loving marriages and families.

How Widespread Is Cohabitation?

Today, cohabitation is one of the biggest challenges to marriage and family life: in 1960, 500,000 couples cohabitated; by 2010 that number had grown to 7,529,000.

More than 60 percent of marriages are now preceded by cohabitation (W.B. Wilcox et al., “Why Marriage Matters,” 2011, p.1).

The majority of couples who participate in pre-Cana programs today are cohabiting and have little understanding of the risks of this lifestyle for their own good and that of their children.

A 2013 report on cohabitation, from the National Center for Health Statistics, was based on in-person interviews with 12,279 women, ages 15-44, conducted between 2006 and 2010. It demonstrated the following:

As a first union, 48 percent of women cohabited with their male partner, up from 43 percent in 2002 and 34 percent in 1995; 


22 months was the median duration of first cohabitation, up from 20 months in 2002 and 13 months in 1995;

3.  19 percent of women became pregnant and gave birth in the first year of a first premarital cohabitation; and

4.  70 percent of women without a high school diploma cohabited as a first union, compared with 47 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Harmful Effects of Cohabitation on Relationships

1.  A 1992 study of 3,300 cases found that couples who cohabited prior to marriage have a risk for divorce that is about 46% higher than for non-cohabiters (“Journal of Marriage and the Family,” February, 1992).

2.  Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times higher than among married couples (“Journal of Health and Social Behavior,” September, 2000).

3.  Women in cohabiting relationships are more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than are married women (National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002).

4.  The more months of exposure to cohabitation, the less enthusiastic couples are about marriage and childbearing (“Journal of Marriage & Family” (59), 1997).

5.  Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents (“Journal of Family Issues,” January, 1995).

6.  Cohabiters tend to not have an ethic of commitment that is as strong as non-cohabiters. This could explain the high rates of divorce among couples who cohabited prior to marriage (“Journal of Marriage and the Family,” August, 1997).

7.  Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose special risks to children (“Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation on Families, Children and Social Policy,” New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002).

8.  Cohabitation increases acceptance of divorce among young people (“Journal of Marriage & Family,” [59]).

9.  Cohabitation can contribute to selfishness and, later, a lack of openness to children.

10. Respondents who cohabited after divorce or cohabited with their partner in a subsequent marriage reported, on average, lower levels of happiness in the remarriage than remarried respondents who did not cohabit after the initial divorce (“Journal of Marriage and Family,” 68(2), May, 2006).

11. Compared with peers who had not cohabited prior to marriage, individuals who had cohabited reported higher levels of depression; the level of depression also rose with the length of cohabitation. (Alabama Policy Institute, August, 2006).

12. The longer couples cohabited before marrying, the more likely they were to resort to heated arguments, hitting, and throwing objects when conflicts arose in their subsequent marriage. A longer length of cohabitation was linked to a greater frequency of heated arguments, even when controlling for spouses’ age. (Alabama Policy Institute: August, 2006).

13. Women in cohabiting relationships are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than are married women. Within cohabiting relationships, middle-aged women were at greatest risk of being killed. (T.K. Shackelford and J. Mouzos, “Partner Killing by Men in Cohabiting and Marital Relationships: A Comparative, Cross-National Analysis of Data from Australia and the United States,” ”Journal of Interpersonal Violence,” 2005 (30:10); 1310-1324).

We can only hope that the parents of young adults who are considering cohabitation will have the confidence to discuss the major risks associated with cohabitation with their sons and daughters. 

And we can also hope that when the Synod Fathers meet in October 2015, all will be better informed about the risks associated with cohabitation for couples and society.

Rick Fitzgibbons, MD is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and has worked with several thousand couples over the past 38 years. Trained in psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center, he participated in cognitive therapy research with Aaron T. Beck. In 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the psychotherapeutic uses of forgiveness in the treatment of excessive anger and in 2000 coauthored Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hopewith Dr. Robert D. Enright, University of Wisconsin, Madison, for American Psychological Association Books. The second edition of this book is in press.

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