How to Help Cohabiting Couples

I would like to point out what I believe to be the via media, whereby these our brothers and sisters in Christ can both be welcomed and challenged to live the call of their baptism.


But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death  (Rv 21:8).

Every priest who prepares couples for the sacrament of matrimony in the United States knows that a majority of the young people requesting this sacrament are habitually fornicating in a publicly scandalous manner; we euphemize this reality by the word “cohabitation.” Priests are often baffled at the prospect of credibly proposing the Church’s sexual teaching to these couples. Priests’ responses can range from cowardly resignation and unwillingness to confront the difficult situation, to arrogant indignation at the sin of the couple, which immediately closes off any meaningful hope for dialogue and conversion. In this little article, I would like to point out what I believe to be the via media, whereby these our brothers and sisters in Christ can both be welcomed and challenged to live the call of their baptism. In the words of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical letter Humanae Vitae: “While it is an outstanding manifestation of charity towards souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ, this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ himself showed by his conversations and dealings with men. Having come not to judge the world but to save it, he was uncompromisingly stern towards sin, but patient and rich in mercy towards sinners.”

Whenever couples present themselves to the Church’s priest for a sacrament, the first response should be one of joyful and enthusiastic welcome. Whatever the motivations for their petition, an immortal soul has the opportunity to encounter the fount of life and the source of eternal salvation, Jesus Christ. We should greet them and listen to them with care, sincerity, and with a smile.

The question nevertheless inevitably arises: What should a priest do in the face of consistent and habitual moral choices contrary to their dignity as persons and children of God? “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). The first thing the priest ought to do is call the couple—with sensitivity and in a manner suitable to their maturity and understanding—to a deeper life in Jesus Christ; a call to follow Jesus as a disciple. In this spirit, allow me to present three approaches which I have found to be particularly helpful in unveiling the lie of fornication.

  • Women are biologically different from men. Men are almost always “ready”—so to say—while women are not. Women are often able to think more clearly and rationally about sex and the sexual act than men. For this reason, I normally address the woman with a question such as the following: “So, Sally, I see that you guys have the same address?” “Yes, Father. …” At this point, I smile and say, “Don’t worry, I’m not kicking you out, and I’m still really happy that you are here to prepare for marriage. Allow me to pose a hypothetical question to you. How would you feel if Ben were willing to have sex with someone who wasn’t his wife? Would that fly in your marriage?” “No!” she inevitably replies. “But Sally, you are not Ben’s wife right now, and he is willing to have sex with you. … Do you think that attitude is going to change all of the sudden after your wedding day?” At this point, the guy is normally looking at me with a perplexed look, and the woman almost immediately gets the point.
  • After this first moment and rhetorical question, I move on to the second. It has to do with the ability to make sacrifices and the desire to live a life according to God’s plan. It goes something like this: “I know this isn’t comfortable, and I’m not here to condemn you guys, but I love you and want you to go to heaven and live a happy marriage. Now, you both have told me you want kids, right?” “Of course, Father.”  “You know that raising kids will be the hardest thing you will ever have to do?” I say. “Yes,” they respond. “Okay, I’m going to ask you guys to do two things. First, can you promise me you will make every effort not to engage in sexual acts before your wedding day? That means, practically speaking, you won’t be able to be alone together after dinner or alone and in the dark watching a movie, etc. It is going to be hard, but I know you can do this. You are going to have to be more creative about what you do, where you meet, etc. This is going to be awesome for you though! You are going to work on more subtle intimacies: kind words, simple signs of affection, hand-written notes, flowers, walks, watching a sunset, etc. Truth be told, this is going to make your marriage so much better, and it is going to prove to yourselves and me that God is the most important reality in your life. ‘I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me’ (Phil 4:13). This is your new favorite prayer. Also, having kids is going to be much harder than not having sex for six months. The second question I need to ask you is, are you willing to move out? Are there any friends, family members, etc., that could take one of you in during the next six months?”If the priest prudently discerns that there is a true impossibility that one of them move out, then they are to be helped as to how they can live as brother and sister under the same roof: different rooms, one upstairs, one downstairs, no time together after dinner in the house alone, etc. If they cannot move out, the question of scandal with their family and friends will also have to be addressed.
  • The third question has much more to do with virtue and the capacity to be chaste, and consequently, it is the lead-in to speaking about Natural Family Planning. “So,” the priest says, “you both know that God calls every person to chastity. That means we use the gift of our sexual lives according to right reason. Basically, we aren’t animals driven around by our feelings, but rather, human beings who can act in a way we know to be good and true despite it’s not always feeling good. Even though it seems counterintuitive, the exercise of chastity is the basic condition for freedom. Let me give an example. Say Ben can’t go three days without sex or he starts to get agitated and short, etc. Then, say Ben goes on a two-week business trip. Sally, you should be really concerned about his ability to be faithful! In a nutshell, if we can’t ‘prove’ our capacity for chastity before marriage, it won’t just appear after marriage. I want you both to be free and have the greatest confidence in each other’s ability to remain faithful.” You should really have the woman’s attention at this point. A smiling face and finding appropriate moments to laugh and insert humor can make all the difference in their willingness to speak frankly and seriously to you as their priest.

I began with the words of the Holy Spirit through the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation to drive home the gravity of fornication and the need for us as priests to make every effort to help our young people. We need to encourage them, challenge them, tell them we believe in them and know that they can live God’s plan for their lives with his help. They need to know that we are rooting for them and that God’s mercy is always waiting for them to forgive, heal, and strengthen them in the sacrament of penance should they fall. Millions of children’s lives depend on the wholeness of their parents’ marriage; the future of our nation depends on the health of our marriages; the New Evangelization is just a slogan if we fail to take marriage and its demands seriously; this is worth all our efforts and our full attention and generosity as priests preparing couples for the sacrament of matrimony.

Fr. Ted Martin About Fr. Ted Martin

Fr. Ted Martin is a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is completing his license in Canon Law at Santa Croce University in Rome and studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After being ordained a priest in 2011, he spent a year at Saint Augustine.


  1. Avatar Micha Elyi says:

    I take the complementary tack, I ask Ben if it’s ok with him that Sally have sex with someone who wasn’t her husband.

    By the way, is the habit of bashing men and mollycoddling females a requirement of the Catholic priesthood no one told me about or is it a smoke of Satan in the Church thing?

    • Avatar anonymous says:

      As a female in the Church, and one who cohabited for years before entering the Church, I can say two things:
      1) As a woman in the Church: At least in Confession, I do feel that priests “go easy on me” because I’m female. Or maybe it’s because I’m obviously truly repentant (I cry a lot in Confession). Either way, I do wish there were a priest who could see my sins for what they are (i.e., deeply ingrained) and “prescribe” an appropriate penance that would actually help me to avoid these sins, rather than give me some token penance that I already do three times a day anyway (like saying an “Our Father”).
      2) As a former habitual cohabitor: I think that few women would choose to cohabit if they could have a husband instead. The “marriage market” is such these days that it’s expected that we cohabit. Cohabiting really serves men, not women. I would have much rather dated for a few more months, then gotten married, but men just will not do that. So we face the dilemma of either cohabiting or getting dumped so he can go cohabit with someone else. And he WILL find someone else. We are the mercy of men in the marriage market these days, because so few men are willing to marry in the first place. That being said, I don’t think it’s “bashing”/”mollycoddling” to take the approach Father Martin suggested, although I can also see the sense in taking the one you suggested, Micha. Maybe it would be wise to “feel out” the particular couple a little, and then determine which approach would be more effective with that particular couple, given their personalities or apparent roles in the relationship.

      • Priests these days “go easy on” everyone, not just women. In 50 years of going to Confession fairly regularly to many different priests, I have never cried in the confessional and I can only recall two or three times when the ptiest has seemed to truly appreciate the gravity of my sins and my situation. One of them was a priest who told me that he wasn’t going to give me absolution and that I should go away and come back only when I was TRULY sorry and truly determined not to sin again. At the time I was angry, but that was the best advice I ever got; I think that priest, whoever he was, was a saint.

    • Father Ted Martin Father Ted Martin says:

      Micha Elyi,

      I think the complementary tack would work as well and I certainly have no intention of “bashing men” and if I were “mollycoddling females” that would imply that I am treating them indulgently or in an overprotective manner which just isn’t the case. It is a simple perception on my part – perhaps I am mistaken – that women in their 20’s are often much more sensitive to the deeper meaning of human sexuality and often show a deeper capacity to understand “sex” on a more than bodily level. I hope that is helpful.

  2. Avatar thereserita says:

    The fact that “bashing men & mollycoddling females” can be (wrongfully) deduced from this article demonstrates how skewed our knowledge of a healthy spiritual & moral life has become. The article is simply suggesting a pastoral approach to a very common problem. The author’s citation from Humanae Vitae spells this intent out clearly. The physiological fact of life is that women receive & men give. And, yes, that often makes women more aware of the import of what’s happening, even if only in so far as the fact that she may end up as a mother.

  3. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    One of the corporal works of mercy is fraternal correction. Love is desiring the good of the other, so it is imperative that a cohabitating couple be given the truth about marriage and why the sexual act is O.K. within marriage, but not outside of marriage.

    Primarily, why is fornication wrong?

    Because the primary purpose of marriage is children and the education of them. The Church teaches that a stable committed relationship between a man and a woman is the best environment to educate and raise children. That is why fornication is wrong.

    Young people are not stupid. They want the truth. And the truth is simple.

  4. Avatar Sine nomine says:

    I rejoice in Father’s joyful enthusiasm and desire to assist cohabiting couples. With less than three years of priestly life and experience I wonder how many couples he has helped prepare for marriage. With 21 years of priestly life and pastoral experience my rose colored glasses came off years ago regarding the motives and intentions of couples who “shack up” prior to marriage. I have tried a variety of ways to convince them that there is only one way to properly prepare for marriage by following God’s way – with very little success. Although few bishops would support the approach today, I think we would have better success if we returned to the practice of the clergy of yesteryear: simply refuse to officiate at the weddings of couples who live in sin.

    • Avatar Donald says:

      Dear Fr. Without-a-Name
      Fr. Martin’s article was both enlightening and encouraging. Your comment (and condescension) was disappointing. I can only imagine how frustrating pre-marital counseling and preparation must be in this culture; you are truly on the front lines. However, we truly need you and the “joyful enthusiasm” you ascribe to Fr. Martin. My own vocation as a father to sons and daughters requires persistent counsel by me and, yes, experiencing great frustration at times. But I endeavor, with God’s grace, to keep showing up with joyful enthusiasm.

      • Avatar Sine nomine says:

        I certainly did not intend to be or sound condescending toward Fr. Martin. I do truly recognize that this young priest has “joyful enthusiasm.” My point was simply that Fr. Martin is very inexperienced in marital preparation. Given his brief bio which appears above, there is simply no way that he has prepared a significant number of couples at this stage in his ministry. As a parish priest and pastor for many years my experience is such that the approach which Father suggests simply won’t work. Rest assured that I approach all engaged couples with joy and the hope that they will take to heart the teachings of Christ regarding the sanctity of marriage. However, I am also very realistic. I can think of only 2 cohabiting couples who ceased living together prior to marriage after I challenged them to do so. Things are only getting worse.

    • Avatar Catholic says:

      I agree with you Father. At least, that would be something they would stop and listen. Tell them the truth with love and mercy from beginning to end, but stay firm. This is the way a loving parent and God behave.

  5. Dear Fr. Martins,
    Thanks so much for this encouraging word of advice for the singles. I’m an African lady, single and a deep lover of Jesus and Mary. The quotation you attached said it all, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Rv 21:8).” Whoever wants to have eternal life with Christ should embrace your teaching. God keep you firmjy in His vineyard. Amen

  6. Dear Father Without-a-Name
    The longevity of one’s position does not necessarily correlate with wisdom, understanding or practical counsel. Nor does the duration of Fr. Martin’s priesthood mean, as you assert, that he is “inexperienced”. How do you know that he is, as you say, very inexperienced? Furthermore, I suspect his suggested via media has borne fruit which presumably is precisely why he proposed it. Following your logic, the editor of HPR should simply find the oldest priest out there to write on the subject (or, for that matter, any number of pastoral topics).

    • Hello Donald. The Church is in great need of wise priests! And wise laity, for that matter. This culture shows little respect for elders, and indeed is preoccupied with youth, with “fun,” with thinking outside of the box, with an upper middle-class lifestyle paid for on credit. This foolishness explains to a large extent the present bankruptcy of the nation: economically, morally, and intellectually.

      I think an assessment on “experience” in a particular field – any particular field – coming from a person with many years in that field, deserves a respectful hearing. Time – for a humble learner – is a great teacher.

  7. Avatar Ronald Sevenster says:

    Fr. Martin said: “Whenever couples present themselves to the Church’s priest for a sacrament, the first response should be one of joyful and enthusiastic welcome.”

    I very much doubt that they come for the sacrament. In many cases they come for the purpose of having a beautiful and impressive wedding ceremony.

  8. Avatar Marion (Mael Muire) says:

    anonymous (4/25) wrote: “The ‘marriage market’ is such these days that it’s expected that we cohabit. Cohabiting really serves men, not women. I would have much rather dated for a few more months, then gotten married, but men just will not do that. So we face the dilemma of either cohabiting or getting dumped so he can go cohabit with someone else. And he WILL find someone else. We are the mercy of men in the marriage market these days, because so few men are willing to marry in the first place.”

    I suspect that all this may be more true of “playahs” than of men generally: the somewhat quiet, slightly nerdy guy in your classroom, the neighbor’s son who hangs out with his folks a lot, who’s always been 10 lbs overweight and rather unathletic . . . some of us women may turn up our noses at them, but other girls will see their potential, and at 35 and 40 these men are making excellent husbands and fathers . . .

    It doesn’t take long for a smart man to realize that the woman he’s currently seeing may be the one he’s been waiting for all his life. And if she’s a Christian, and smart also, she will find a way to explain to him that, while she is extremely attracted to him, her love for Jesus requires of her that she live chastely until she is married. If he has begun to fall in love with her, even the most sordid-minded fellow will think:, “huh! a woman who won’t have sex before she’s married because God tells her not to; this is one I may be sure won’t step out on me after we’re married, either. Not too shabby!”

    It’s actually her love for Jesus that certain men will see in her and without necessarily realizing it, will make them feel that she is the woman they can’t live without.

    • Marion,
      I’ve been dating for more than 20 years, and as much as I’d long to think I’ll one day find the man who thinks with his heart, as you described, the reality is…. He’s not out there.
      The “sex-is-expected-on-the-third-date” guy IS out there, and so are the Catholic, sex-by-the-third-month-of-dating guys are prolific! But the guys who see a chaste, faithful woman as precious as pearls and rubies? If such men exist, they should start a dating site!
      The only men who think like that got married ten years ago.
      The only hope I have left is false hope.
      Good thing the priests are marrying the cohabitators or there would be no marriages!

  9. Avatar Larry Northon says:

    I think just about every approach has been tried, without success, except one: telling people of what awaits in eternity those who die in mortal sin. Even those few bishops who have spoken out against modern social mores only talk about sin in terms of its temporal effects. That’s not enough. I think what needs to be said to these cohabiting couples, kindly, gently, compassionately and charitably, of course, is: “do you realize that you’re both one heartbeat away from eternity in hell? Is this what you want for yourselves?”

    • Why can’t a priest say, “Whether you realize it or not, Catholic teaching is X. You will at least have to feign compliance by keeping separate addresses, or better yet, actually try to see it, understand it, and live it out. I think you can appreciate that once we talk, if you simply flout it, I can’t really just rubber stamp you in a ceremony without making a farce of Church teaching. We really do believe our message, and think you will appreciate the fact that we ask that if you want to be married in the Church, you at least respect it if you can’t totally sign on with it. Otherwise you really wouldn’t respect *us*, would you?”

  10. Father Martin,

    If a couple admits to their priest during a marriage preparation meeting that they are fornicating and they do not agree to stop, shouldn’t they be told before the end of that very meeting to abstain from presenting themselves for Holy Communion until they have both ceased fornicating and have been to confession regarding the matter?

    Thanks for what you do, Father.


  11. Father Ted Martin Father Ted Martin says:


    Sorry, but I can’t live in a world where my first instinct is to assume people are lying to me. Do people lie? Sure. I’m going to always give them the benefit of the doubt though. Also, take a look at Saint John Paul II’s address in 2001 to the Roman Rota ( about the nature of marriage and how what is essential for marriage as a Sacrament is no different than what is essential for marriage between two non-baptized. The act of self-donation and the will is the same, the difference is that between the baptized, it is inserted into the mystery of the redemption and Christ’s love for the Church such that it “obtains a special firmness by reason of the sacrament.” (Code of Canon Law, 1056)


    I don’t think the first way to help people in a radically de-christianized world with little knowledge of the the Person of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Faith is by informing them off the bat that they are going to end up in hell for fornicating; I think there is a better way to help them both embrace the fullness of the truth about human sexuality and as a consequence avoid eternal damnation. To be sure, hell awaits all who die in the state of unrepented mortal sin. Nevertheless, it can be counter productive and do more harm than good if one’s effect is to drive people away. If I have two uncatechized Catholics in front of me, I want to tell them why I love being Catholic; Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I want to propose the beauty of the Trinity, the salvific mission of Jesus, the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit, the divine institution of the Church and her sacraments, the freedom that the beatitudes and commandments – which includes sexual virtue – bring, the joy of prayer and the fruits of charity. No doubt, hell will be mentioned but all in the context of the whole of the faith. I think we miss a tremendous opportunity if we do not spend a significant amount of time catechizing our young people when they present themselves for marriage as a condition for them to more fully embrace the faith and have a chance at true sexual integrity and freedom.


    If after explaining human sexuality in God’s plan, the couple insisted on continuing to fornicate, then yes, I would explain to them that honesty demands they not receive Holy Communion in that state because it would be a contradiction. I would emphasize the importance of continued prayer, study {I give young people Christopher West DVDs’ which I’ve found greatly help them understand the Theology of the Body}, participation in the life of the Church, etc… as explained in Familiaris Consortio, 84. I would hope it wouldn’t come to that and thank God I’ve never had that situation in marriage preparation. I would keep with them though and pray and fast for them with the prayer that God would soften their hearts and grant me the grace to speak the right words at the right time so that they would embrace a life of chastity.

  12. Avatar Maria Procaccino says:

    What a bunch of judgmental blowhards commenting here…i go to only female gynecologists because a male “does not get it” just as a priest does not get life….Jesus turned away no one….move out? Who are you kidding and where do you live? When the man travels gor business? Misogonist maybe? Refuse the Eucharist? Did Jesus refuse the woman at the well? You guys would have all done really well during the inquisition. Who are you to judge?

    • You write “Who are you to judge?”j and “just as a priest does not get life” in the same screed? A strange sort of Catholicism there.

  13. Thank you, Father. I find your approach strikes the right balance of helping and challenging couples, in a nice and friendly way.

  14. Hi Maria. You may have been addressing my question about receiving Holy Communion (among other comments).

    There is a difference between judging a person, and recognizing that an action is a sin. In fact it is as simple as the difference between a noun – the person and a verb – the sin.

    We must not judge a person and say whether they would go to heaven or hell. That is Jesus Christ’s responsibility. And I am glad it is not mine. We should pray for all (especially ourselves) to repent and to go to heaven.

    However, we must each judge throughout the course of our every day lives whether particular actions are sins or not. Both our own actions and those of others! Is this thing I am about to do a sin? Should I entrust care of my children to a person known to abuse kids? (Extreme example, obviously) These type of judgements fall under our own responsibility. But here we are not pronouncing on a person’s fate. A person is not the same as an action.

    It is Church teaching that only Catholics in a state of grace may receive Holy Communion. Every knee must bend for Jesus Christ. And the Eucharist is truly his body and blood.

    Father Martin did not say he would refuse them Holy Communion. He did say that honesty (the couple’s honsety) demands they abstain from it. He is simply informing them of the truth of the situation.

    I hope this clarifies my earlier question.


  15. Dear Fr. Ted Martin – in responding to your response to Larry –

    I agree with your assessment – we are faced with the context of ministry to “people in a radically de-christianized world with little knowledge of the the Person of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Faith…”

    I agree with your desire: “I want to propose the beauty of the Trinity, the salvific mission of Jesus, the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit, the divine institution of the Church and her sacraments, the freedom that the beatitudes and commandments – which includes sexual virtue – bring, the joy of prayer and the fruits of charity. “

    My question is, can you do this with “… our young people when they present themselves for marriage…”? Can you wait until they come seeking marriage, to pass on to them what you want to pass on to them?

    My concern is that we cannot wait, and should not. Faith formation is a continuing and life-long journey that should be the norm in our parishes. In other words, Catholics should be expected to participate in Scripture Studies and Catechism Studies. It should be normal for most Catholics to participate in short-term programs like “How to Evangelize,” “What Constitutes a Truly Catholic Home and Family?”, “Defending the Catholic Faith,” “How Do We Grow in the Interior Life of Prayer?”, “Reaching Out to Fallen Away Catholics,” “The Practice of Lectio Divina,” and so on. It should be normal to be a learning, growing and maturing Catholic! Young adult Catholics should not be surprised by Catholic Truth when they look into marriage, and into the many moral challenges that are attacking the humanity of mankind today, as well as our Catholic Faith.

    We need pastors who will make such formation normal, in our parishes.

  16. Avatar Kristen says:

    Fr. Martin’s article is wonderful and his approach to the problem fantastic. An older Priest told me about a young couple that knew what they were doing was wrong so when they came for marriage preparation, they lied on the paperwork so it would look like they were not living together. I think most of the young people know what the Church teaches but either don’t care or no longer believe the teaching to be relevant. It makes for a very difficult problem for Priests when young people are so willing to lie to get a wedding for family and friends to attend. A friend’s son who stopped going to Mass and lived with his girlfriend wanted to get married in the Church so his mother would attend the ceremony. He joined a Parish, and once the marriage ceremony was over, was never seen at the Church again. However, he did not have a Mass. The Priest did some sort of marriage ceremony without a Mass, which upset his mother but was probably more honest for him so he didn’t have to receive Communion in a state of sin. Is this something the Church sometimes does now in these situations?


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