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Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons

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The pope seems to be missing the real dangers of cohabitation. It’s time for the Church to get serious

Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons

November 18, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) -- In busy mental health practices over the past decade or more, increasing numbers of attractive Catholic young women are seeking help for symptoms of intense anxiety, panic attacks, sadness with uncontrollable crying and intense episodic anger.  When the history is taken, a severe betrayal experience is often related of the ending of a two to three-year cohabiting relationship. Most of these young women had hoped when they moved in with their boyfriend that their relationship would lead to marriage and children. 

As time went by the romantic and sexual relationship were not sufficient to offset the harsh reality and sadness of living with a person who was profoundly selfish and not interested in being a responsible and sacrificially giving husband and father.  Often these young men were from a two child Catholic family in which they were overly indulged, never engaged in sacrificial giving and were never corrected for their selfishness.

In our experience the short lived cohabiting relationships are one of the reasons that antidepressant use among Americans is skyrocketing.  A 2014 article in Scientific American (November) reported that the U.S. consumed four times more antidepressants in the last several years than they did in the early 1990s.

The widespread cultural acceptance of cohabitation has led the majority of Catholics to believe falsely that this lifestyle is psychologically healthy, prepares young adults for marriage and helps in weeding out negative relationships before a lifelong marriage.  The harsh reality is that these unions are short lived and regularly leave deep psychological scars in those involved, as well as to children born into them.

The clear teaching of St. John Paul II on marriage, the family and cohabitation from The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, also known as Familiaris Consortio, is needed now more than ever, especially in view of Pope Francis’ recent confusing comments on marriage and cohabitation.  The Holy Father stated at a pastoral congress on the family for the Diocese of Rome on June 16 that the majority of marriages are null and that some cohabiting couples are in a “real marriage,” receiving the grace of the Sacrament.

In contrast, St. John Paul II has written:

Marriage between two baptized persons is a real symbol of the union of Christ and his Church, which is not temporary or trial union but one which is eternally faithful.  Therefore, between two baptized persons there can exist only an indissoluble marriage. (FC, n 80)

Catholic parents, Bishops, priests, singles, siblings, relatives, friends, educators need more knowledge about the reality of cohabiting unions in order to protect youth from them and also greater confidence and fortitude to communicate in Churches, homes and schools the serious risks of cohabitation to the long term happiness and psychological health of those considering this lifestyle. 

Prevalence of Cohabitation

In the U.S., cohabitation poses a major challenge to marriage. In 1960: 500,000 couples cohabitated, while in 2012 7.8 million couples cohabitated. Also, now more than 60% of marriages are preceded by cohabitation (Wilcox et al. 2011.)  Cohabitation is response to a significant degree from the retreat from marriage. 

Many Catholic single males are engaging in a major retreat from marriage.  By cohabiting they can see no reason for marriage since their needs for female friendship, romantic love and sexual intimacy are being met. 

The massive retreat from marriage is clearly demonstrated in the shocking statistics from Georgetown.  In the U.S. in 1969 there were 426,309 Catholic marriages; in 2000, there were 261,626; and in 2013, 154,450.

Brief, Painful Unions

A 2013 report on cohabitation from the National Center for Health Statistics on 12,279 women, ages 15-44 demonstrated:

  • as a first union, 48% of women cohabited with their male partner, up from 43% in 2002 and 34% in 1995;
  • 22 months was the median duration of first cohabitation, up from 20 months in 2002 and 13 months in 1995;
  • 19% of women became pregnant and gave birth in the first year of a first premarital cohabitation.

In addition, twenty-one percent of children are born now into these unstable unions and roughly 40 percent of children now spend time in a cohabiting household.

The Causes of Cohabitation

Blessed John Paul II wrote in The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, “It will be very useful to investigate the causes of this phenomenon, including its psychological and sociological aspect, in order to find the proper remedy” (paragraph 80).

Dr. Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, wrote in his 2011 report Why Marriage Matters, “One of the primary reasons for getting married—starting a family—is increasingly viewed as a relic of the past. The institution of marriage, and even the presence of two parents, are seen as nice but not necessary for raising children. Thus, even when a baby is coming, many young adults see no need to rush to the altar. Finally, many young adults in romantic relationships greatly overestimate the chances that they have already met their future spouse, which makes them vulnerable to sliding into parenthood even though they haven’t married."

In our clinical experience over the past 40 years, the six leading causes of cohabitation are:

  • profound selfishness with a distaste for sacrificial giving
  • the contraceptive mentality with the acceptance of using another as a sexual object
  • the epidemic of pornography use
  • a lack of preaching and teaching about the goodness and beauty of the sacrament of marriage and the risks associated with contraception since the release of Humane Vitae in 1968
  • the fear of divorce and, subsequently, commitment
  • lack of faith and trust in the Lord with the sacrament of marriage and children

The contraceptive/divorce revolution has clearly undercut the younger generation’s faith in marriage: About 37% of young adults say “marriage has not worked out for most people they know” (Wilcox 2010). The contraceptive/divorce revolution’s bitter fruit is the cohabitation epidemic and the retreat from marriage.

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Unfortunately, many in the Church have deliberately been at work for decades trying to undermine the Church’s liberating truth about sexual morality in their dioceses, secondary schools and universities.

St. John Paul II and Origins

St. John Paul II has written about the origins of cohabitation which is consistent with our clinical work and that of many Catholic mental health professionals:

At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God's plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one's own selfish well-being (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, n.6).

Most of the young women and men we see for cohabitation posttraumatic stress disorder have been wounded by such toxic, arrogant selfishness.

St. John Paul II also wrote of other factors:

In other cases, however, one encounters people who scorn, rebel against or reject society, the institution of the family and the social and political order, or who are solely seeking pleasure. Then there are those who are driven to such situations by extreme ignorance or poverty, sometimes by a conditioning due to situations of real injustice, or by a certain psychological immaturity that makes them uncertain or afraid to enter into a stable and definitive union. In some countries, traditional customs presume that the true and proper marriage will take place only after a period of cohabitation and the birth of the first child (F.C., 81).

Amoris Laetitia and Origins

Amoris Laetitia identifies cohabitation as “often not motivated by prejudice or resistance to sacramental marriage, but by cultural and contingent situations” (n. 294). The analysis completely ignores the serious psychological conflicts of selfishness and anger against sacramental marriage in many of those who chose to use others as sexual objects in cohabiting unions, but never plan to marry or have children. 

Harm in Cohabiting Unions

Dr. Popenoe, former director of the National Marriage Project, has accurately described cohabitation as a low commitment, high autonomy pattern of relating.  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture commented that, “Living together is not to marriage as spring training is to the baseball season." 

Psychological research is showing that those in them have far greater likelihood of having depressive and anxiety disorders and have a diminished likelihood of later marital stability and happiness. Also, the children born into these unstable relationships that lack deep commitment have far more psychological disorders than those in marriages.

Research studies available on our website, www.maritalhealing.com, demonstrate that:

  • Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married
  • Women cohabiting relationships are more likely to suffer physical and sexual abuse than married women
  • Cohabiting couples report lower levels of happiness, lower levels of sexual exclusivity and satisfaction, and poorer relationships with their parents
  • Cohabiting unions tend to weaken the institution of marriage and pose special risks to children
  • Cohabitation increases acceptance of divorce among young people
  • Cohabitation can contribute to selfishness and later a lack of openness to children.
  • Compared with peers who had not cohabited prior to marriage, individuals who had cohabited reported higher levels of depression and the level of depression also rose with the length of cohabitation.
  • 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.
  • Women in cohabiting relationships are nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than were married women.

Harm to Children

Additional studies demonstrate:

  • child abuse is a major problem in cohabiting households.  children living with two married biological parents had the lowest rates of harm, 6.8 per 1,000 children, while children living with one parent who had an unmarried partner in the house had the highest incidence, at 57.2 per 1,000 children. Children living in cohabiting households are 8 times more likely to be harmed than children living with married biological parents.
  • In a study of 149 inflicted-injury deaths during the 8-year study period children residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with 2 biological parents.
  • Children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents' separation and fully three quarters of children born in cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age 16.
  • a review of hundreds of research papers that examined the social, emotional and financial effects of cohabitation and marriage on women, men, children and society, concluded that cohabitation is inherently unstable and carries a high cost on children's physical and psychological development.
  • The author noted, "Commitment and stability are at the core of children's needs; yet, in a great proportion of cohabitations, these two requirements are absent."

St. John Paul II and Risks

In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II wrote:

Each of these elements presents the Church with arduous pastoral problems, by reason of the serious consequences deriving from them, both religious and moral (the loss of the religious sense of marriage seen in the light of the Covenant of God with His people; deprivation of the grace of the sacrament; grave scandal), and also social consequences (the destruction of the concept of the family; the weakening of the sense of fidelity, also towards society; possible psychological damage to the children; the strengthening of selfishness) (F.C., n.81).

Amoris Laetitia and Risks

Unfortunately, chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, nos. 293 and 294 on cohabitation, completely ignores the extensive sociological and psychological science on the numerous risks to children and adults from unstable cohabiting unions.  It also fails to warn about the harm to marriage caused by them.

New Catechesis

The severe harm caused by the cohabitation epidemic and the retreat from marriage can only be brought to an end by new systematic catechesis for our time on the truth and beauty of God’s plan for married life and sexuality.  St. John Paul II’s The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World, Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body could be an important foundation for such a program.  This groundbreaking theology has hardly been introduced to Catholic parents and young Catholics.  

Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, MD, is the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia and has worked with thousands of couples over the past 40 years, including hundreds of Catholic married couples and youth. He is also an adjunct professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at Catholic University and is a board member of the International Institute for Forgiveness.

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