IT'S A strange feeling when your private life becomes a news item, and the subject of high sounding public debate.

Now I know what it must be like to be a Teen Drinker, or a Single Parent, or a Mountjoy Prisoner, or a Corrupt Planning Official. Suddenly, I am living in a De Facto Union.

According to the last census there are about 70,000 of us, gay and straight, living together like mad. But actually living together is pretty quiet. We De Facto types say things like: don't forget it's your mother's birthday, did you put the bins out, the shower is leaking and do you think Anne Doyle has lost weight.

In other words, we just get on with it.

Then the Law Reform Commission ups and makes recommendations that the De Factos be allowed parity on issues like social welfare and the right to inherit each other's overdrafts. Which was nice. Next thing you know everyone is talking about us in the newspapers.

Some people must be used to this invasion of their domestic bliss . . . it seems that the Beckhams hardly have a private life at all, if we were to believe what we are told. Some people are forced into the headlines. Take Beverly Cooper-Flynn. Or Joy Fahy's colourful portrait of life (allegedly) chez Dolores O'Riordan, which kept us all entertained last month, and spawned several nervous articles about the risks of hiring a nanny.

But it comes as a bit of a shock to us lesser mortals to discover that, while we thought we were just sharing the gas bills and joint custody of an aged washing machine, we had mutated into a Threat To Marriage. Dear, dear, and we thought we were simply living together.

That's what Archbishop Sean Brady said of us, at last weekend's Irish Bishops' Conference seminar, entitled 'Supporting Marriage and Family Life'. I think we'll just let that sentence stand right there.

If I'm reading the newspapers right, the archbishop said that any institutional recognition conferred on de facto unions would constitute a threat to marriage. As far as I know the Law Reform Commission didn't recommend any state recognition of the De Factos, and many of us don't want it, so there. But as usual in Irish debates on sexual morality there are cries for the stable door to be bolted before the horse has even been born.

On the positive side, Archbishop Brady also said, and I think this is very interesting, that it was essential "to acknowledge the vital distinction between private homosexual behaviour between consenting adults and formalizing that behaviour." In other words, homosexuals are all right (yes! ) but the archbishop doesn't want them to get married to each other. I think we have to regard such a statement from a senior spokesperson for the Catholic Church as progress. Does the pope know?

Like the archbishop I am unmarried.

Unlike the archbishop I am not worried that the breakdown of the family will lead to "unacceptable individualism", although that's an interesting thought.

Contrary to what the archbishop might think, we De Facto Union types do not want marriage to break down, we don't want the family to fragment . . . we just don't want to be married. Is this a sin? Yes, and we're living in it.

When the divorce legislation went through everyone expected a nuptial rush, as people ran to legitimise existing unions.

As far as I know, this never happened. The truth is that not everyone wants to be married . . . even for tax reasons.

A very wise woman once said that if society wanted more marriages to survive there would be less social pressure to marry. Marriage has become one stop on the conveyor belt of adult life, an automatic halt. Personally, like Elton John, I have no idea why gay men and women would want to get married. As far as I'm concerned they are lucky they don't have to.

In fact the social pressure to marry is immense. Marriage is a badge of normality, and that is why so many people marry when they are far too young.

Marriage, like living together, or being a good priest, is much more complicated than any of us likes to admit. It is full of nameless problems that no one can help you with.

The one thing that is noticeable about happily married people is that, unlike the archbishop and, to a lesser extent, myself, they don't think that they have to run around preaching about it. When happily married people stagger into my kitchen, having completed the four hundredth school run of their career, they do not seem particularly threatened. They usually say "For God's sake, have you any beer?"