It is an increasingly accepted fact that young couples live together nowadays in a form of trial marriage (or, in some cases, instead of marriage.) Even priests preparing young Catholic couples for the wedded state accept the practice quite calmly. They may not approve, but they accept. They may even make jokes about it, privately.
And sometimes this premarital living together is quite well-intended. Parents, who do not want their offspring to enter into wedlock with an unsuitable partner, may encourage the young couple to try cohabitation first. As my Aunty Dorothy used to say, with a heavy tone of irony: "If you want to know me, come and live with me." By this she meant that not many illusions remain when you have shared a home with another human being.
This is as true of community life as of any other domestic arrangements. One of St Thérèse of Lisieux's best-quoted experiences is how the nun behind her in the chapel nearly drove her demented with her habit of rattling rosary beads. Small personal habits are maddening. Leaving the top off the toothpaste is, to me, an unbearable vexation, but I have had to learn to live with it.
But big personal flaws are what the co-habitors and their supporters have in mind. Parents hope that a daughter fixated on a villain will get it out of her system by going and living with him. Or that a son involved with an 'unsuitable' woman older than him, with two children by a previous union, will lose his infatuation after a disenchanting period of cohabitation. I am thinking of real cases here. Many other parents just accept the practice with a shrug, as the way things are nowadays.
And many perfectly honourable young couples themselves believe that if they get used to living with each other, their marriage will be better and stronger; that trying out the relationship will improve it. It is a test, they feel, of the compatibility factor.
It is easy to imagine that this could be the case; but in fact, it is not. Several studies have shown that a couple who live together before marriage are more likely to split up (or to go on to divorce), after marriage. There have been British and Scandinavian social studies which have linked the rise in divorce with the rise in cohabitation. And now comes an American study which has produced the same results. David Popenoe of Rutgers University and Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University have conducted the study which shows that couples who live together before marrage are 48 percent more likely to get divorced than those who do not.
Moreover, living together doubles the risk of wife-battering and child abuse. Cohabiting couples also register lower "happiness levels" than those who have married. Living together, David Popenoe concludes, "is not a good way to prepare for marriage or to avoid divorce." Alan Booth says of the profile of permanent cohabitees: "They show a lot of symptoms of depression. Their relationships are not stable, especially if there are children."
When you think about it, it is obvious, really. Anyone with experience of marriage knows that it is not the 'compatibility factor' that is the deciding element in marital success: it is the commitment. You can be reasonably compatible with a wide range of people, if you put your mind to it. And you can learn just how compatible you might be through the process of friendship, and courtship.
But what marriage really requires is faith. Faith in the marriage, faith in the vows, faith in the sacramental element, and faith in the fortitude to go on when bad times occur, which they always will.
Marriage is like rocket launching: a huge surge of energy, of faith, hope and optimism, are required to get the project going. Living together beforehand whittles down this energy, reducing the staying-power of the enterprise.
When couples cohabit, they get accustomed to one another in an everyday way, so that by the time they do tie the knot, the shine has gone off the relationship. The 'whoosh' factor that is required to launch the union has dissipated.
Booth and Popenoe do not rule out all cohabiting arrangements, speaking as sociologists rather than moralists. Couples who cohabit on a short-time base just before getting married, but always with a full intention of marrying, can turn out to have good marriages. But still, the couples who do not cohabit at all - who do not move in together before marriage - go on to have the most successful marriages.
I have always thought that living together was a poor bargain for women. Quite quickly they are landed with all the chores and responsibilities of being a wife, without any of the commitment or support. They shop, they iron, they service the domestic arrangements of the couple much more thoroughly than the male; and still it happens that the relationship breaks up just at a time when it gets harder for a young woman to find a new partner. It is an unfair fact of life that women of 30 are at a disadvantage in the marriage market, whereas men of 30 are in a favourable position.
Christianity has always favoured marriage over cohabitation, of course. Now sociology is behind the marriage preference, too.
Mary Kenny is a Catholic journalist with a regular column in 'The Irish Catholic'.