Cohabitation Is Not Marriage Prep

Monday, 04-16-2018


The idea that cohabitation is good preparation for marriage is amazingly persistent, considering that it isn’t even close to being true.

Research consistently shows that couples who do cohabit have poorer relationships before marriage, poorer marriages if they do marry, and much higher rates of divorce.

When the findings are presented to them, people respond in various ways.  Some cohabiting couples I have known make the decision to stop cohabiting, just because they do care about the relationship.  This seems to me the most sensible response.

Other cohabiting couples tell me that correlation doesn’t prove causation.  No, but it is very unwise to ignore it.

Still others say the statistics are phony.  Nice try.

Perhaps the most common response is to think “We’re the exceptions.”  If there were as many exceptions as people who think they are exceptions, the statistics would be vastly different.

The evidence is so strong that among family sociologists, the debate is not about whether couples who cohabit before marrying have weaker marriages, but why.

The explanation I have always found most intuitive is that in every way, the two relationships are fundamentally different.  The whole point of being married is having a commitment, but the whole point of not being married is not having one.  How can not having one be practice for having one?  It would make better sense to call cohabitation practice for divorce.

Besides, marriage comes with institutionalized norms.  Cohabitation doesn’t; you make it up as you go along.

Just because the future is more uncertain in cohabitation, couples have less incentive to invest in the relationship.  This makes the future more uncertain still.

And because of the uncertainty, persons who are cohabiting tend to keep score.  Keeping score is something you do with your shopkeeper – did I get enough value for what I gave?  Did he come out ahead?  It shouldn’t be necessary with your beloved.  But once the habit is formed, it persists right into marriage.

Friends of mine who study these matters have suggested several additional explanations for both the instability of cohabitation itself and of marriages preceded by cohabitation.

One explanation is that couples who don’t cohabit must make a clear and sharp decision to enter into the commitment of marriage, but cohabiting couples slide from one stage to another with very little conscious decision.  First they sleep together.  Then they do so more frequently.  After a while he spends the night so often that he starts keeping a toothbrush and change of clothes at her house.  Then he moves more of his things over there.  Eventually he might as well move in, and he does.  Marriage is just one more thing the couples slide into.

Here is another explanation.  But you won’t like it.

Across human cultures, men tend to prefer the best-looking women.  Women, by contrast, care less about men’s looks, but prefer men with higher status and greater financial security.

Now as men grow older, their status and financial security improve.  But as women grow older, their looks decline.  Do you see where this is going?  For each year that a cohabiting relationship continues, the woman becomes less attractive to the man, but the man becomes more attractive to other women.

The facts are especially cruel to the woman, who is probably hoping that if only she lives with the man long enough, he will marry her.  Actually, the longer the two of them cohabit, the more she is placed at disadvantage -- and the more he is likely to want out.

“But don’t older married men sometimes dump their wives too?”  Sure, but marriage is much more stable than cohabitation.  Why?  Because it really is a commitment.  Even today our mores reflect this.  Men who walk out on cohabitation are rarely looked down upon.  Cads who ditch their wives for younger ones may sometimes be envied, but they are never admired.

Besides, marriage civilizes men.  The longer they are married, the more they grow to understand Browning’s line, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

Now tell me:  How is a relationship which is based on having no commitment, contains multiple incentives for failure, and contains a built-in disadvantage for women good preparation for marriage?

Book:  On the Meaning of Sex


Optimism, Pessimism, Neither of the Above?

Monday, 04-09-2018


During a beautiful conference last week about marriage, sexuality, love, faithfulness, and fruitfulness, there was a great deal of discussion, both between and during sessions, about whether we should be optimistic, pessimistic, or hopeful about the state of things today.  An optimist, I suppose, thinks the culture can be redeemed in 60 years, but a pessimist thinks it will take 600. 

All of us think about such things, and I confess that I too alternate between pessimism and optimism.  In my view, though, we should ignore and disregard both of these moods.  We don’t know what will happen.  God knows.  All that matters is hope.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither powers, nor principalities, nor technological paradigms, nor renegade theologians, nor disorders in the Church.

We are not generals, but soldiers.  God is the general.  We think we have to see the battlefield as He sees it.  We don’t.  Nor do we need to devise Benedict options.  In that difficult age in which the Rule for monastic life was developed, Benedict himself didn’t think he was devising a Benedict option.  God did, and that was enough.

Nor do we need to be afraid.  How did the Christian knight react when he came upon the dragon?  Did he estimate whether the dragon could be overcome in his lifetime?  No.  He lifted his sword and fought the dragon, and he sang with the joy of the battle.

Some day, when Christians look back on our age, they will look back on it not as a golden age -- certainly not that -- but as a heroic age.  Under our circumstances, even the exercise of the ordinary, everyday elements of moral character, such as temperance and chastity, is coming to resemble heroic virtue.  And think how much more deeply those future Christians will understand sexuality than we do, having read the histories of our battles, our defeats, and our triumphs.

The Christian knight was neither a pessimist or an optimist, and he was right to despise his moods.  Let us try, by God’s grace, to be knights.


Gregory of Nazianzus on Easter

Sunday, 04-01-2018


The following reflection on the Resurrection, its meaning, and its celebration is from the fourteenth oration of Gregory of Nazianzus, fourth century Byzantine Theologian, a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity and a Father of the Church.

Today we have absolutely escaped Egypt, and Pharoah, our cruel lord, and our stern taskmasters, and have been set free from the mud and the brick-making, and there is no one to hinder us from keeping a feast to the Lord our God ....

Yesterday I was crucified with Christ; today I am glorified with Him.   Yesterday I was dead with Him; today I am made alive with Him.  Yesterday I was buried with him; today I am raised up with him.  Well, then, unto Him, who suffered and rose again for us, let us offer our own selves, that possession which is both most precious to God, and most befitting to Him; let us render to the Image that which belongs to the Image; let us recognize our own dignity, and do honor to the archetype, and understand the force of the mystery, and who it was for whom Christ died.


Divine Pedagogy

Monday, 03-26-2018


Why does the Old Testament include all those ritual purity rules?  Are they just arbitrary taboos?  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with consuming the blood of an animal, or wearing a garment woven of two different kinds of fiber, is there?

The assumption behind these questions is that nothing should be forbidden unless it is intrinsically wrong.  A moment’s thought shows that this assumption is incorrect.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with driving on the left; in some countries they do drive on the left.  But it would be harmful for vehicles to drive both on the right and on the left, so in each country the law chooses designates one side of the road for vehicles and prohibits driving on the other.   The fact that the law could have chosen a different possibility doesn’t make its decision arbitrary.

In the language of the natural law tradition, there is a term for this sort of thing.  The requirement of driving only on the right is said to be a determination of the more general requirement to drive safely.  We could say that it pins down the particular way in which safe driving is to be achieved among a particular people.

In much the same way, the Old Testament ritual purity rules are determinations of the more general rules which direct man to God.  They pin down the particular way in which that was to be achieved among the chosen nation.

One could think of these rules as a divine educational program.  For example, the prohibition of consuming blood separated the Hebrew people from the surrounding pagan nations who drank the blood of their victims, and taught them to abhor the shedding of human blood.  In turn, the pouring out of blood in animal sacrifice dramatized the fact that they owed God their very life, and foreshadowed the sacrifice of Messiah.

A more puzzling case is the trio of prohibitions in Leviticus 19:19, which prohibits allowing different kinds of animal to mate (for example a horse with an ass), sowing a field with more than two kinds of seed (for example wheat and barley), or wearing cloth made from two kinds of fiber (for example linen and wool).  What purpose do these three determinations serve?  Many have been suggested.  But considering what the trio have in common, couldn’t one of the purposes of the divine pedagogy in their case have been to nurture respect for the order of creation, and to militate against contempt or disregard for natural boundaries?

No doubt such wholesome attitudes could have been inculcated in other ways – but it would be dreadful to neglect them.  Or is such a fear unnecessary and overwrought?

Not in the least.  Consider what is already happening in our repaganized world.  The attempt to develop so-called chimaeras -- creatures brought about by crossing humans with other creatures -- is already well underway.  Several biotech companies have transplanted the nuclei of fertilized human eggs into the eggs of sows that have had their nuclei removed, and then let them begin to divide.  Other scientists have proposed blending the genetic material of humans and chimpanzees to make “humanzees” which could be used as slaves.  Such obscenities are treated as though they were all but inevitable.  Law journals carry articles about the chimaera law of the future.

I don’t propose reinstating Old Testament ritual purity rules, but the fact that Christians are released from them does not imply that the lessons the rules meant to teach are no longer true.  In fact, through the grace of the sacraments, the divine pedagogy continues.

The Jews were not free to live like pagans, disreverence life, spurn God, trespass natural boundaries, or befoul the sweet order of creation -- and neither are we.

Natural Law Trailer


Lost Time

Monday, 03-19-2018


Since I’ve lost time recovering from surgery this week, I’m not composing a “proper” blog post.  But since I do hate to let readers down, I’m offering a few words about lost time itself -- and about blogging.

About lost time.  When I grouch about time being “lost” or “wasted,” what I usually mean is that I had to use the time differently than I might have chosen.  But if God is the master of our days, as I claim to believe, then isn’t this attitude of mine graceless?  Why should I assume that how I would have chosen to use my time would have been better than what He has in mind for it?  If He sees fit to slow me down this week and interrupt what I fondly call my projects, presumably there is a reason.  Perhaps there is something else that I need to be doing more than what I think I should be doing -- something that I wouldn’t have taken time to do unless He had thrown a little sand in my gears.  Such as learning to be more patient.  Or more still.

About blogging.  If my website statistics are to be believed, I’ve gained a bunch of new readers lately.  (And lost some old ones!  Must be a story here.)  If you’re new, and you’ve tuned in just for the blog, I invite you to look around the rest of the website to see what else you may find interesting.  Maybe nothing, but maybe something.  If you do find something you like, I hope you’ll tell other folks about it.  Link, tweet, chirp, or whatever folks do.  Much obliged to you.

Now excuse me, please.  I’m going to take a nap.


St. Thomas and the Happiness Gurus

Monday, 03-12-2018


For the past two years I have been writing a book on Thomas Aquinas’s theory of happiness and ultimate purpose.  One of the topics he considers is whether we can attain happiness just through our own natural powers.  Wondering how others might answer, while writing the chapter about it I did a quick web search using the question, “What can we do to be happy?”

The first time I ran the search, the query yielded 627 million hits.  Ironically, the first one after the advertisements was a suicide hotline.  After that bleak note, the results became buoyantly optimistic:  “10 Simple Things You Can Do Today That Will Make You Happy,” “45 Things You Can Do to Get Happy No Matter Where You Are,” and the cockiest, “10 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.”

The happiness gurus who write these items almost never suggest becoming a virtuous person.  From a Thomistic point of view, this is worse than an oversight, since what might be called the happiness of this life lies chiefly in the exercise of the virtues.  How else can we even enjoy the other good things?  For example, how else can we properly practice friendship, delight in our families, and contemplate the objects of knowledge?

A good deal of the advice the gurus do give is either wrong (some of them attribute magical powers to money) or fatuous (my favorite was “Happiness is maximized at 13.9° C”).  Some of their advice is not really about the attainment of happiness, but about the banishing of sorrow – a topic St. Thomas treats separately, making practical suggestions like enjoying innocent pleasures (go read a novel of P.G. Wodehouse), sleep, baths, weeping, the sympathy of friends, and fixing the gaze of one’s mind upon Divine truth.

Not all of the “simple things” the gurus suggest are bad ideas.  And St. Thomas certainly agrees that to attain what passes for happiness in this life, human powers -- plus a certain amount of good fortune -- suffice.

Of course one might not have good fortune.  Besides, even if one does, what is called happiness in this life inevitably leaves us asking “Is this all there is?”

His answer is that the happiness of this life is not all there is.  But for supreme and perfect happiness – not just more of the same old happiness, but a higher kind of happiness -- we need Divine help.

Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics



Monday, 03-05-2018


Curious how conversion works.

One may think the only difference is that one’s beliefs have changed.  Or that one’s moral standards have changed.

It is more like rising from the dead.

Perhaps without having realized that you were dead.

Imagine having a family photograph and noticing one day that someone you hadn’t thought present in the photograph had been there all along.

It was like that with the memory of God.

Imagine waking up and discovering someone in the house whom you hadn’t remembered that you lived with.

It was like that with His presence.

Imagine becoming aware that your motives for various actions had not been at all like what you had taken them to be.

It was like that with the knowledge of self.

Imagine realizing that you knew all sorts of things that you had told yourself you didn’t know and even couldn’t know.

It was like that with knowledge of a host of other things.

Imagine having sat in a dark place for years, not knowing that the shutters were nailed closed.  Now they are being flung back.  Beams of light are flowing in as solid as columns of ivory.  You had forgotten what light looked like.

It was like that.

Book:  What We Can’t Not Know