The Cohabitation Dilemma

The number of couples who choose to live together without marriage has risen dramatically in the past fifty years, from near zero to 60%. For Catholics the percentage is almost 50%. One subject regarding this which has received little attention is that of the religious dilemma for a couple who claim Catholicism (or any Christian religion) as their faith.

Why Cohabit?

Why do couples choose to cohabit? Two out of three do so to test their compatibility with each other.1  They assume that if they live together for a time they will better prepared for a marriage and will thereby avoid divorce. It is easy to see why that conclusion might be intuitively assumed.

Alas, it just isn’t so. A large number of studies in the latter part of the twentieth century showed that living together before marriage increased the chances of divorce once married. However, a number of studies between 2010 and 2014 concluded that living together before marriage had no effect on divorce rates.2 Then, in 2018, Rosenfeld and Roesler carried out a new study that showed pre-marital cohabitation does indeed increase the chances of divorce down the line.3

In an article about divorce rates for cohabitors which didn’t consider Rosenfeld and Roesler, Brett and Kate McKay wrote:

What’s important to note here, however, is that while there may be emerging evidence that cohabitation isn’t harmful to marriage stability, there isn’t any evidence that it is helpful. It may not increase your chances of getting a divorce, but it doesn’t at all decrease them, either.4

Moral Issue

The first issue is that of pre-marital sex. Sacred Scripture has some things to say about fornication, that is any sexual intercourse between unmarrieds:

…[Jesus said] From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy . . . All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.5 (emphasis added)

St. Paul had something similar to say:

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.6 (emphasis added)

It should be clear from this that fornication is a serious matter, the matter of mortal sin.7 The Church makes this explicit: “According to Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and as right reason also recognizes, the moral order of sexuality involves such high values of human life that every direct violation of this order is objectively serious.”8

St. Pope John Paul II taught this in different words in 1987:

It is sometimes reported that a large number Catholics today do not adhere to the teachings of the Church on a number of questions, notably sexual and conjugal morality, divorce and remarriage. Some are reported as not accepting the Church’s clear position on abortion. It has also been noted that there is a tendency on the part of some Catholics to be selective in their adherence to the Church’s moral teachings. It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a “good Catholic” and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error . . . (Address in Los Angeles, 9/16/87)

Being unable to receive the sacraments means one is not in the state of grace, but is in the state of mortal sin. This has serious implications regarding a person’s candidacy for salvation.

Fatima visionary St. Jacinta Marto reported before she died that the Blessed Mother told her, “More souls go to hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.”9 She received that message in 1920. If one watches TV, reads the news, or uses the Internet, it should be clear that sins of the flesh have multiplied manifold since 1920.

Public Sin

It is not unreasonable to presume that a romantically involved couple that live together are fornicating. But there is more than the sin of fornication here. It’s living in sin publicly. A cohabiting couple doesn’t hide the fact that they are living in sin. That is far more serious than fornicating. They’ve gone public with it.

They are, whether they intend it or not, setting an example for others by their behavior. Although setting an example is usually far from their intention, it is de facto an example, one which they are willing to tolerate to achieve their goal.

In other words, the influence their actions have on their siblings, their nieces and nephews, their friends, etc. is something for which they are responsible.

How serious is that? Here is what Jesus had to say about it:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! (Mt. 18:6-7)

That’s pretty strong, no?

Now some may say, “Well, in this day and age, living together is hardly scandalous.” It’s true that due to the prevalence of this behavior, the number of those who might be scandalized is much lower than it was thirty or forty years ago. Nonetheless, it would be naïve to think that no young person would be negatively influenced by a sibling or relative cohabiting. Our goal as followers of Christ is to set a different example than that of the world. Even if we prevented one child from pursuing cohabitation when she entered adulthood, it would be worth it to refrain from it ourselves.

The Dilemma

So here is the dilemma: a Catholic unmarried couple living together must either admit to themselves that they are publicly living in mortal sin, or they have to reject the Biblical teaching that fornication is wrong. Option two would be unthinkable for a follower of Christ. Of course, a third option would be to try not to deal with the issue. But, in order to marry in the Church, they have to deal with it.

If they marry in the Church, and they marry another Christian, they participate in the sacrament of Matrimony. But to participate in this sacrament in the state of mortal sin is a sacrilege. So, it is important for the couple, or at least the Catholic party, to learn the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and its Biblical origins and, as a minimum, to embrace it as truth. If they do that, and confess their sins before the wedding, a sacrilege is avoided.

That doesn’t solve the scandal issue, but it is a step in the right direction. What would be better is if the couple chose to live separately before the wedding to manifest their acceptance that pre-marital cohabitation is contrary to the Biblically based teaching of the Church. A good number of couples have done that in the past. Some have said they are very happy they did live separately for that time.

At the very least they should live in separate rooms and attempt to live chastely before the wedding. I have seen many couples do that as well. One such couple told their priest that doing so improved their relationship a good deal.

There have been a number of saints who cohabited for several years before their conversion. The most notable were St. Augustine (14 years) and St. Margaret of Cortona (9 years). After their conversions they prayed and did penance for many years for their former sinful life, which they deeply regretted. They should give us all hope.

If a couple really wants to avoid divorce, they should commit to praying together daily. A 1997 Gallup Poll done by the National Association of Marriage Enhancement ( showed the divorce rate among couples who pray together regularly is 1 out of 1,152.10 That’s less than 0.1%. The national divorce rate is 40% (and perhaps more for cohabitors). There is no law against couples starting to pray before they marry.

How much better to do something to prevent divorce that helps their relationship with God, rather than do what harms that relationship. The need for grace in marriage is far more important than testing compatibility so as to avoid greater odds of divorce. And, as we saw above, living together doesn’t reduce those odds anyway.

Couples who are seeking to marry in the Catholic Church should use this time of matrimonial preparation to take stock of their relation to Christ and their level of commitment to live the Catholic faith. The Lord promised us a cross if we would follow him. Do we really want to follow him?

Jesus expects a great deal. But he gives a great deal more.

  1. “Should You Live Together Before Marriage?” by Brett and Kate McKay • June 7, 2017 • Last updated: September 5, 2020. At
  2. These studies included: Copen, Daniels, Vespa, and Mosher in 2012; Reinhold in 2010; Manning and Cohen 2012. (from
  3. They agreed that chances of divorce were lower in the first year of marriage, but for every year thereafter the chances are higher. See “Premarital Cohabitation Is Still Associated With Greater Odds of Divorce,” OCTOBER 17, 2018 by Scott Stanley, @DECIDEORSLIDE, and Galena Rhoades,
  4. “Should You Live Together Before Marriage?” by Brett and Kate McKay, op. cit. They added, “While more recent research showed that, even when controlling for selection factors, married couples who had lived together before getting married (or engaged) ‘had more negative interactions, lower interpersonal commitment, lower relationship quality, and lower relationship confidence,’ and were almost twice as likely to have at some point suggested divorce.”
  5. Mk 7:21-23; see also Mt 15:19, 20.
  6. 1 Cor 6:9, New American Bible (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1991). See also Gal 5:19-21.
  7. For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1857).
  8. Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics, Congregation for The Doctrine of the Faith, 1975, n. 10.
Rev. Thomas G. Morrow About Rev. Thomas G. Morrow

Reverend Thomas G. Morrow has a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. Fr. Morrow is a priest of the Washington (DC) Archdiocese. He is the author of several books, including Be Holy: A Catholic's Guide to the Spiritual Life. His website is:


  1. Avatar Dave Demare says:

    Fantastic article on a tragically sad reality.!

    • Avatar Rev. Stephen Collins says:

      Amen! Now to try to get permission to print this article and insert it in the bulletin. Parishioners tend to think that a pastor’s objection to cohabitation is his being judgmental and “not with the times.” It is unfortunate that even those who are parish staff and are parents can fall into supporting their children in cohabitation. Should we return to a different model of Faith Formation because the present one does not seem to be effective at all? Is the Church, by Her silence, condoning cohabitation????

      • Sarah Greydanus Sarah Greydanus says:

        Rev. Collins: We would be happy for you to print the article in your bulletin, just so long as earlier publication in HPR is acknowledged.

        God bless,
        Sarah Greydanus, Managing Editor

  2. The issue isn’t just cohabiting couples. Couples who aren’t living together but are having sex outside of marriage are just as problematic. Whether couples are living together or not but are having sex then more than likely they are using contraception, which got us into this whole sex out of wedlock mess in the first place. Very rarely, if ever, do priests take on the contraception issue from the pulpit. Priests should look around during Mass, and if a priest is seeing the vast majority of families with just 2 older children, more than likely he has a contraception problem in his parish.

  3. I am not defending couples who co-habit before marriage, in fact I agree with everything in this article but I just wonder if it’s partly because of the sex abuse scandals that so many people turn up their noses at church teachings.

  4. In a day where allegedly traditional, faithful Christians heartily embrace as a leader a thrice married, twice divorced, serial adulterer who boasts of having had multiple affairs with married women, pays off porn start to keep them quiet and says he has never had anything to ask God’s forgiveness for, the notion of living together before marriage as being “scandalous” falls woefully flat. An entirely new standard of morality, and scandal, has been set, accepted and ratified by those who, heretofore, might have held their idols to a higher standard of morality.

  5. Police records show that almost ALL domestic violence happens within couples who are living together as if they are married, but are not.

  6. The article might be too long to put in a parish bulletin but perhaps a brief summary with a link to the HPR article might work.


  1. […] do couples choose to cohabit? Two out of three do so to test their compatibility with each other.1  They assume that if they live together for a time they will better prepared for a marriage […]

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