In 2022, we were blessed to serve over 6,000 engaged Catholic couples from 72 countries around the world.
We recently reflected on the data collected from our course participants, and we saw a marked difference in a couple of key areas. As ministry leaders, you have likely experienced these changing demographics in your work with couples.
Here are a few things we learned about how the pandemic changed engaged Catholic couples, and how that affects marriage and family life ministry.
- Bride: 30
- Groom: 32
What changed: The average age of both has increased by 1 year. This number has been rising steadily in the U.S. since the early 2000s when brides were around 25 and grooms were around 26. The average age is only slightly lower for Catholic couples than it is for the general population.
- Average: 642 days
The length of engagement is significantly longer than in previous years. In the past, the average was around 500 days. This is due to postponed and rescheduled weddings because of COVID-19.
- Same Location: 83%
- Different Locations: 5%
- Combination: 12%
More couples are using our programs from the same location. Our online courses are being used for a variety of reasons by couples who are not separated by distance.
- We live separately: 28%
- We have been living together for more than a year: 51%
- We have been living together for less than a year: 14%
- I’d rather not say: 7%
More couples are cohabitating than in past years. Our data shows that at least 65% of couples were cohabitating, and it could be closer to 72%. This was the most significant change in our post-pandemic data, and we believe it directly affects all areas of marriage and family life ministry.
How Should We Respond?
With the increase of engaged couples cohabitating, what is our responsibility? It’s clear that those preparing Catholic couples for marriage are at the front lines of this phenomenon. It’s also clear that this trend has been steadily increasing over the years, and the pandemic only exacerbated it.
The United States Catholic Conference addressed this issue in 1999 when almost half of engaged couples were cohabitating. In the Report on New Realities of Pastoral Practices (https://www.usccb.org/topics/marriage-and-family-life-ministries/marriage-preparation-and-cohabiting-couples), the USCC stated:
Those who choose to marry instead of continuing to cohabit are the “good news” in a culture that is increasingly anti-marriage. Those cohabiting couples who move to marriage seem to be the “best risk” of a high-risk group: they have fewer risk factors than those cohabitors who choose not to marry. Even so, they still divorce at a rate 50% higher than couples who have never cohabited. They are a high-risk group for divorce and their special risk factors need to be identified and addressed, especially at the time of marriage preparation, if the couples are to build solid marriages.
The Report continues by reminding those preparing couples for marriage that this is a teachable moment. It is “an opportunity for evangelization and catechesis.”
Cohabitating couples inevitably approach marriage with habits that could lead to higher divorce rates, infidelity, and conflict; it’s the responsibility of those preparing couples for marriage to address those issues during marriage prep. The USCC Report urges clergy and lay ministers to avoid the extremes of harshly condemning couples for cohabitation or ignoring the issue altogether.
Discussing Cohabitation During Marriage Prep: Approaching Couples With Curiosity
Since it’s clear that we will all be ministering to an increased number of cohabitating couples, how could we approach the topic in a way that leads couples toward a more sacred view of marriage and commitment?
The advice found in the USCC’s report reminds us that curiosity is the key to opening up an honest conversation with couples.
Encourage the couple to reflect on their situation and why they decided to cohabit and to provide insights into possible consequences, factors that may present special challenges to them, or put them at risk for later marital disruption.
Asking good questions will not only provide insight into the couple’s character, beliefs, and habits, it will also enable them to explore how those things may affect their future marriage. Asking those questions with the spirit of understanding and an honest desire to see the couple reconciled to God, the Church, and one another can help them learn where they may have gone astray and accept the call to return to Catholic teaching on marriage and family life.
Moving Forward With Today’s Couples
Although these statistics aren’t what we hoped to see, we recognize that this is the reality of life for the couples we serve. In light of this data, The Marriage Group is looking for thoughtful and innovative ways to address these changing demographics in a way that honors Catholic teaching and promotes the gospel truths of love, mercy, and grace.
We also pray for your ministry to couples, acknowledging the many conversations that you have with cohabitating couples and the tension you may feel between honoring the standard God has called you to uphold and the current state of relationships in our parishes.
For more information on this topic, we recommend the USCC’s Report on New Realities of Pastoral Practices available here: (https://www.usccb.org/topics/marriage-and-family-life-ministries/marriage-preparation-and-cohabiting-couples)