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in Sex and Marriage in the Catholic Tradition: An Historical Overview - page 2 / 11





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As pointed out in Faithful to Each Other Forever, the committee acknowledges a distinction between sexual activity outside of marriage and co­habitation. They are not identical mtttters. One can exist without the other. Couples may engage in sexual intercourse without living together; other couples may share the same residence but not live in a sexual relationship. The focus of this paper, however, is on cohabitation understood as both having a sexual relationship and living together in the same residence. Moreover, in Part 2, the paper focuses even more narrowly on a segment of cohabiting couples, namely those who choose to move out of this type of relationship and into the life-long commitment of mar­riage. It is this group of engaged couples who pose certain unique pastoral challenges.


Those couples who are in a cohabiting relationship and who come to the church for marriage preparation represent only a percentage of the total cohabiting population. Nonetheless, to understand and respond to them one must appreciate some aspects of the broader phenomenon of cohabitation. This, in turn, is set within a context of widespread sexual activity outside of marriage. In this section we provide highlights of what social science has discovered about cohabitation in general and with specific reference to cohabiting couples who eventually marry.

1. How Widespread Is Cohabitation?

Cohabitation is a pervasive and growing phenomenon with a negative impact on the role of marriage as the foundation of family. The incidence of cohabitation is much greater than is indicated by the number of cohabiting couples presenting themselves for marriage. Slightly more than half of couples in first-time cohabitations ever marry; the overall percentage of those who marry is much lower when it includes those who cohabit more than once. Cohabitation as a permanent or temporary alternative to marriage is a major factor in the declining centrality of marriage in family structure. It is a phenomenon altering the face of family life in first-world countries.

. Eleven percent of couples in the United States cohabited in 1965-74; today, a little over half of all first marriages are preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass and Lu, 1998; Popenoe and Whitehead, 1999).

. Across all age groups there has been a 45 percent increase in cohabitation from 1970 to 1990. It is estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of the couples coming to be married are cohabiting (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995; Bumpass, Cherlin and Sweet, 1991).

. Overall, fewer persons are choosing to be married today; the decision to cohabit as a permanent or temporary alternative to marriage is a primary reason (Bumpass, National Survey of Families and Households paper No. 66,1995). The percent of couples being married in the United States declined 25 percent from 1975 to 1995. The Official Catholic Directory reported 406,908 couples married in the Catholic Church in 1974; in 1995, it reported a 25 percent decline to 305,385 couples.

. Only 53 percent of first cohabiting unions result in marriage. The percentage of couples marrying from second and third cohabitations is even lower (Bumpass and Lu, 1998; Bumpass, 1990; Wu, 1995; Wineberg and McCarthy, 1998). Ten percent to 30 percent of cohabitors intend never to marry (Bumpass and Sweet, 1995).

. All first-world countries are experiencing the phenomenon of cohabitation and the corrosive impact it has on marriage as the center of family (Bumpass, National Survey of Families and Households paper No. 66, 1995; Hall and Zhao, 1995; Thomasson, 1998; Haskey and Kiernan, 1989).

2. What Is the Profile of the Cohabiting Household?

The profile of the average cohabiting household is both expected and some­what surprising. Persons with low levels of religious participation and those who have experienced disruption in their parents' marriages or a previous marriage of their own are likely candidates for cohabitation. Persons with lower levels of education and earning power cohabit more often and marry less often than those with higher education. The average cohabiting household stays together just over one year, and children are part of two-fifths of these households. Men are more often serial or repeat cohabitors, moving from woman to woman, while women tend to cohabit only one time.

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