Recently I spoke with a student who was strongly attracted to the view of marriage maintained by the natural law tradition. He told me, though, that he had been cohabiting with the same woman for five years, and “we consider ourselves married.” His question: Isn’t this the equivalent of marriage? Does it matter?
He wanted to do the right thing and he asked me to speak frankly, so I did. Sure it matters. One enters into the matrimonial commitment by mutual consent. If we were living in anarchy, with no laws or customs, then that would be it. Human experience has shown, however, that such an arrangement is unstable. For this reason – even apart from sacramental considerations – the legal recognition of marriage requires that vows be exchanged in the presence of witnesses, and publicly registered. This not only solemnizes them, but makes it possible for them to be enforced.
Cohabitation deliberately avoids these things. So here is how you know whether you have a commitment: If you’re married, you do. If you aren’t married, you don’t.
“I’m not suggesting that you intend to leave her,” I asked, “but what if you did? She would be left high and dry, and so would any children.” I suggested to him that by not marrying her, he was doing her an injury, even if neither of them thought of it that way.