Cohabitation and Church Teaching

Why does the Church teach that having sex before marriage is wrong?
First of all, if you’ve ever heard anyone – a priest, layperson, or anyone else – tell you that sex is something bad, then he or she is absolutely wrong! Our Church believes that sex is a wonderful thing. In the Old Testament, the book Song of Songs features wonderful poetry about the beauty of human sexuality. More recently, Pope St. John Paul II gave many lectures about the beautiful Biblical view of sexuality in his Theology in the Body (also recommended is his classic book Love and Responsibility).
However, sex – like all gifts – has to be used appropriately. God has designed sex to occur within marriage. According to the Bible, marriage occurs when a man and a woman “become one flesh.” Thus the consummation of a marriage happens during a sexual union. When two people don’t commit to be together for the rest of their lives, sexuality becomes tied to a tentative relationship, something that can be ended at any moment. If we engage in such an intimate, powerful experience as sex with someone we aren’t committed to, then in effect we are using the other person’s body to feel good, either physically or emotionally.

There is another reason. Sex is a delicate, intimate, emotionally charged experience. When someone experiences this extremely powerful bond and suddenly is abandoned, that causes great pain, feelings of loneliness and yearning. Instead, sexuality should be an expression of unity for life, just as newlyweds vow to be with each other until death does them apart. If you wait until marriage, having sex will truly be “making love” and will be a unique experience with that one special person.

So how much can I “do” with my boyfriend/girlfriend without sinning?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with expressing your affection for a boyfriend or girlfriend. Kissing, holding hands and hugging are all perfectly acceptable ways of showing your feelings. A good rule of thumb is that if something involves genital contact, contact with other intimate parts (breasts, buttocks, etc.), leads to orgasm or feels sexual (French kissing, for example), then it just isn’t appropriate for a dating relationship. Casual sex with someone you barely know is an absolute no-no. Remember that if you are engaging in inappropriate sexual contact with your boyfriend or girlfriend, then you’re not only offending God. You’re also taking advantage of another person, using his or her body as a tool to make you feel good.

I’ve had sex or engaged in sexual contact before marriage. What should I do? Am I somehow a worse Catholic?
We are all sinners. Pope St. John Paul II went to confession every week; Pope Francis goes every other week. If even such holy men were aware of their sins, then that must mean that we are all sinners, just as the Church’s doctrine on original sin teaches. God knows that nobody’s perfect. He also gave us sexual desire with the purpose of expressing our love for our spouses in a beautiful way and creating new life. God knows that sometimes, under the influence of hormones and emotions, we can sometimes forget ourselves and do something inappropriate. This does not necessarily mean that you are a “bad Catholic.” If you’ve read St. Augustine’s Confessions (and if you haven’t, you should!), then you will find out that, before his conversion, the future bishop of Hippo had a particularly strong sexual appetite! Yet after his conversion, St. Augustine became one of the Church Fathers and one of the most important people in our Church’s history.

If you’ve engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct, first acknowledge that you did something wrong. Then go to your local Catholic parish, confess to a priest and make a commitment to do better in the future. If you haven’t been to confession in a while, this might make you a little nervous. But think about the great benefits for your soul and the great reward you will have in heaven!

I really, really want to have sex. I can’t wait until marriage. What should I do?!
Wanting to have sex is a perfectly normal human desire. In fact, our sex drive is a gift from God. God gave us the beautiful gift of sexuality so that we can express our love to that one special person and create new life. However, all gifts have to be used appropriately. Think of your sex drive as something like your hunger for food. Food is a great thing. Look at how many cities’ cultures are to a large degree defined by the delicacies that come from there: Paris, Bangkok, Budapest, New Orleans… But if we abuse food and become obese and cause ourselves other maladies threatening our life and health, then we aren’t respecting our bodies, a gift from God. Similarly, sexuality is something great, but it shouldn’t be abused. If you feel that you can’t control your sex drive, talk to a Catholic priest and he will definitely give you advice. Don’t be embarrassed; the priest is human, too! Above all, try to think about things in the long-term. What’s more important: feeling good for one night, or experiencing bliss and union with God in heaven for eternity? Also remember about how the other person will feel. As Catholics, we want to treat our brothers and sisters as we want ourselves to be treated. Casual sexual encounters often lead to people being hurt. After all, people often claim they were “used” in such cases.

God gives each of us a cross to bear in life. Managing a strong sex drive while not married can be such a cross. But it is only through the cross that we achieve salvation.

Why is the Catholic Church opposed to couples living together before marriage?

There are several reasons for this. As we have seen, the Church believes that the beautiful gift of human sexuality should be reserved for marriage. When you live with another person you are romantically involved with, you will likely share the same bed. You will shower in the same bathroom. You are likely to walk in on each other changing. These potential situations happen each day. In other words, this creates ample opportunities for temptation to engage in intercourse outside of marriage.

Secondly, why do people move in together without being married? It’s because they haven’t made a commitment to each other yet, but they want to try out if they would like to get married. In other words, cohabitation is enjoying the benefits of marriage without the commitments. This is a selfish approach. People are not cars that can be “tested.” Such an approach objectifies the other person and, consciously or not, encourages an attitude of non-commitment towards the other person.

Living together before marriage also naturally encourages selfish treatment of the other person. It is also bad for the development of a relationship. In the first stage of a romantic relationship, you might feel like cupid struck you with an arrow. You might smile for no reason and think about your boyfriend or girlfriend constantly, getting distracted at work or school. At this point, your brain pumps tons of hormones called dopamines that make you feel ecstatic.

Eventually, however, this feeling of being lovestruck fades. This is often a challenge for couples. Suddenly, they are faced with the other person’s faults and weaknesses. This is usually the make-or-break point of relationships. Naturally, part of whether or not a relationship succeeds depends on compatibility. However, another ingredient to a relationship’s success is whether or not a couple works on being together. When a couple lives together before marriage, they make no commitments. Thus when the hormones die down and reality sets in, they began to see that the other person snores or leaves the toilet seat up. When a couple is married, they make a commitment to stay together during good and bad times. They won’t leave each other just because of some petty thing (and even because of major challenges). When a couple has made zero commitments, then they are likely to leave each other because of some minor quarrel. In other words, living together before marriage will not teach you about commitment and tenacity, the ingredients for a successful long-term relationship. Rather, it will teach you the “easy way out” of rough times in a relationship. Remember that the Cross is the ultimate symbol of love. Love isn’t just about candlelit dinners and snuggling. It’s above all about staying at the other person’s side at all times, including the frustrating and unpleasant ones.

I’ve been seeing a guy/girl for some time. I might want to marry him/her, but I’m not quite sure. Won’t living together help us test out if we want to be with each other permanently?
Actually, research shows the exact opposite. In fact, studies by scientists demonstrate that couples who live together are 50 percent more likely to divorce when they marry and much less likely to marry at all. In fact, violence against women is more likely to occur among married couples who cohabitated before.

Several more things should be said about this. First, many unmarried couples who live together often end up having children (today, about two in five American children are born to unmarried couples). It is a basic fact of psychology that children grow up healthy when they are raised by married parents. And seeing as how previously cohabitating married couples divorce more frequently, think of the disastrous consequences that such a divorce would have on these children! Many children are traumatized by their parents’ divorce and have to see psychiatrists. In a recent discussion about the Church’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna said that his parents’ divorce was the saddest day of his life, and that couples that divorce should think about the pain they cause their children.

As we saw above, living together before marriage objectifies the other person, making him or her a commodity that can be “tested out.” Treating another person as something that can be thrown away at any moment can’t be healthy for any relationship.

Check out these links:
Hidden Risks of Cohabitation
Cohabitation: Hazardous to Your Health?
Cohabitation and Increased Rate of Divorce

I live with my boyfriend/girlfriend. What should I do now?
To live in full accordance with the Church’s teaching and God’s will, you have to change your living situation. We know that this may not be easy. But if you really want to have a good relationship with God and with each other, you must live separately, confess to a priest and avoid such situations in the future. Don’t worry; the Church is compassionate, and the priest you confess to will, in fact, likely be happy that you have decided that living together is inappropriate and want to change your ways.
Naturally, this may not be easy. But think of the rewards you will receive in heaven and how your relationship with each other will be better!