Every once in a while, you open a newspaper and find an older couple looking out at you from the pages, honored for accomplishing a major marriage milestone — 65, 70 or even 75 years together. They’re still smiling, still holding hands, still the apple of each other’s eye. Often, what’s even more awe-inspiring than the sheer longevity of their relationship is the fact that, once you dip below the surface and read their story, it becomes clear that along with the joys they weathered heartaches and tragedies and sorrows. These are couples who took the vow of “for better or for worse” to heart and truly believe that marriage is meant to last forever.

At the other end of the spectrum is the endless parade of studies predicting the demise of marriage — the increase in cohabitation, the indifference to sacred vows, the rise of out-of-wedlock births, the devastating divorce rate. And somewhere in between are all the other married couples, trying hard to do more than simply avoid becoming a statistic, trying to become one of those smiling old couples.

Marriage is beautiful and difficult all at the same time. It is full of joys and sorrows, much like the whole of life.

But for those who make the commitment and work hard to do it well, marriage is a lifelong blessing with lots of practical benefits to go with it.

The trouble is that too many people today, especially young, primed-to-be married couples, are losing sight of those blessings and thinking they can come up with a better plan: cohabitation. The end result is often heartbreak, instability and an easy way out when the inevitable rough patches arise.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that, of the women interviewed between 2006 and 2010, 48 percent “cohabited with their partner as a first union,” compared with 34 percent in 1995. For women with only a high school education, that number jumps to 70 percent. And nearly 20 percent of all women living with a partner outside of marriage became pregnant within the first year of cohabitation.

It’s a dramatic change from just a generation ago, a new reality seen not only in everyday American lives but touted on the front pages of the celebrity tabloids. With increasing frequency, marriage seems to be seen as an optional add-on when it comes to family life. Ask any cohabiting couple about their relationship, and they’re likely to say what they’ve got is no different or just as good as marriage, but studies and marriage experts warn otherwise.

Intentional vs. accidental

The Catholic Church understands marriage as a sacrament intended to create intimacy and commitment on a level far above any other sort of “contract.” A sacramental marriage — a “covenant” between a husband and wife that is sealed before God and the community — fosters overall health and happiness between the spouses and among their children.

Gregory Popcak, a psychotherapist who is the author of  For Better … Forever! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage (OSV, $14.95) and the host of “More2Life,” a nationally syndicated call-in radio advice show, said there are some obvious and basic differences between the commitment of marriage and the choice to cohabit. He referred to research by Dr. Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, that has shown that the main difference between cohabiting couples and married couples is what Stanley calls “sliding versus deciding.”

“In other words, the path to traditional marriage is intentional. At each step of the way — dating to serious dating to engagement to marriage with a public exchange of vows — there is a conscious decision being made to increase commitment to one another and intentionally limit one’s other choices,” Popcak told OSV.

“With cohabiting, couples slide along rather than deciding. They start sleeping together, then one person gets a drawer at the other’s place, then two, then half the closet, then I might as well move in since my stuff is here anyway, then maybe we have a kid and people start looking at us funny so we might as well get married, I guess,” he explained. “Then one member of the couple or the other wakes up one morning and says, ‘I never chose any of this! How did I get here?’ It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the way it plays out more often than not. The lack of intentionality makes all the difference in the stability, satisfaction and longevity of the relationship.”

According to “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and the RELATE Institute, “children born outside of marriage — including to cohabiting couples — are much more likely to experience family instability, school failure, and emotional problems. In fact, children born to cohabiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents.”

Popcak says it all goes back to the intentionality of marriage and the willingness to publicly commit to another person. Although cohabiting may seem like a fine alternative, couples are often “making up the relationship as they go,” he said.

Faith factor

And to differentiate things even further, a sacramental marriage brings the element of faith into the mix, which only serves to increase a couple’s odds that they will avoid divorce.

“Virtually every study shows that faith is a tremendously positive factor in marriage. Couples who go to church regularly — and especially those who pray together — report happier and more stable marriages, better sex lives and deeper intimacy in general. People-of-faith, in general, are more comfortable with the whole idea of intimacy than people who do not have a strong spiritual life, largely because faith is all about cultivating the kind of healthy vulnerability that allows intimacy to flourish. If a couple struggles to be intimate spiritually, chances are that will play itself out in other dimensions of the relationship,” said Popcak, who is also director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

Judy Psota, executive director of the Pastoral Life Department for the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., knows firsthand the power of faith to strengthen a relationship, heal wounds and confront challenges. Married to her husband, Carl, for 48 years, she said that from the beginning they promised each other that God needed to be an important part of their relationship.

“It was our faith in him and our commitment to one another that helped us through some of the more difficult times in our marriage. When our children were younger, we couldn’t afford baby sitters and fancy restaurants but we knew having a once-a-week date night was essential. So we improvised. Once we put the children to bed we enjoyed late candlelit dinners because it gave us a chance to catch up and focus on each other,” she said, explaining that throughout their marriage, their children knew that Saturday nights were reserved for mom and dad.

Psota also stresses the importance of taking advantage of marriage enrichment opportunities available within the Church, such as seminars, retreats and Worldwide Marriage Encounter. She and Carl also participate as volunteers in Pre-Cana, baptismal preparation classes and other marriage ministries, which have helped keep their own lines of communication open.

“We have lived and continue to live through our marriage vows, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Faith in God and in one another is critical to our marriage,” she told OSV. “There have been times when fear of death because of a serious illness affecting one of us was overwhelming. Without God’s grace, prayer and faith, I’m not sure how we would have been able to survive seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”

Cohabitation’s risks

For cohabiting couples those “seemingly insurmountable obstacles” are often where the relationship breaks down. Without God at the center, without vows and commitment to bind them to each other, it is perhaps not easy but certainly easier to walk away, especially in our quick-fix society where everything is seen as disposable or replaceable. And even if cohabiting couples eventually marry, the long-term statistics aren’t pretty.

Sacramental marriage fosters overall health and happiness among spouses and their children. Thinkstock

According to “For Your Marriage”, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on average, a marriage preceded by cohabitation is 46 percent more likely to end in divorce than a relationship that did not begin with “living together.”

“It’s no secret that many couples are cohabiting, that is, living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Currently, 60 percent of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation, but fewer than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage,” the For Your Marriage site states.

“Many couples believe — mistakenly — that cohabitation will lower their risk of divorce. This is an understandable misconception, since many people are the children of divorce, or have other family members or friends who have divorced.”

So, how do we as a society reverse the trend? Show, don’t just tell, say the experts.

Judy Psota, executive director of the Pastoral Life Department of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J.

Psota said that one of the most valuable investments in the future of an engaged couple is a sponsor-couple program. Engaged couples are paired with experienced, well-balanced married team couples who meet to assist them with marriage formation and continue to provide support and encouragement after the wedding. Popcak also stressed the significance of teaching by example.

“We need to model the power of a good marriage to our young people,” he said. “Marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to be an effective witness, but if we can show our children more of a model of a couple who genuinely works hard to take care of each other and be there for each other no matter what, we are showing them that marriage isn’t, ‘just a piece of paper’  but a real, dynamic, and positive thing.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95).

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