Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers

Written by Mike McManus

To the Presidential candidates, America’s biggest problem is the economy. However, I believe the disintegration of marriage is the nation’s central domestic problem, costing billions of taxpayer dollars for poverty, depression, crime and suicide.

This crisis has three elements:

1. The marriage rate has plunged 53 percent since 1970. Of those aged 30-44, only 6.8 percent had never married in 1970; that has tripled to 21 percent.

2.  America’s divorce rate is the world’s highest, with 45 million divorces since 1970 – one for every two marriages, shattering the lives of 43 million children.

3. Out-of-wedlock births jumped 8-fold from 224,000 to 1.7 million children.

Cohabitation is driving these trends, soaring 14-fold from 520,000 in 1970 to 7.5 million in 2010.  Some couples like Prince William and Kate Middleton, see it as a sensible step to test the relationship. Many couples living together are children of divorce or unwed parents. They fear marriage and believe that living together is a “trial marriage.”

That is a myth. It is more like a “trial divorce.” Of the 7.5 million cohabiting only 20% married, while 80% broke up before there was a wedding. Couples who marry after living together are 61% more likely to divorce, according to a Penn State study. The only question is whether they will break up before the wedding or afterwards. Thus, divorce drives people to cohabit, which makes people less likely to ever marry and to divorce if they do wed.

My wife, Harriet, and I wrote a book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, published by Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. It outlines proven solutions that any church can adopt to virtually divorce-proof their couples.

St. Paul wrote, “Test everything. Hold onto the good.” With an 85-90 percent chance of splitting up, couples who cohabit are embracing failure. However, there is a way for couples to test their relationship that holds onto the good. It involves four elements:

1.  Take a premarital inventory, a detailed questionnaire which asks couples whether they agree or disagree with 150+ statements such as:

When we are having a problem, my partner often refuses to talk about it.
Sometimes I wish my partner were more careful about spending money.

A tenth of couples taking an inventory decide NOT to marry. Studies show they have scores equal to those who marry and later divorce.  They avoid a bad marriage before it begins.  Yet only a third of marrying couples take an inventory, such as PREPARE-ENRICH or FOCCUS. (To learn more, or to be trained, write [email protected].)

2.  Meet with a Mentor Couple who will discuss the issues it surfaces. For example, Harriet and I mentored Hector and Teresa, a cohabiting couple who had separate banking accounts. He bought a new car without her support. I asked him if he thought, “I earned this money. I should be able to decide how to spend it.”

He nodded, “That’s right.” I countered, “The money you spent on the car means there’s less money for your wedding, your honeymoon or furniture.”

Harriet added, “You are living as if you were independent people. Marriage is about interdependence. A joint checking account means accountability. It builds oneness.”

3.  Learn skills of communication. Hector and Teresa both agreed with an inventory item: “I would like to change the way we solve problems.”  She said, “One thing I do not like is one person walking away when they don’t want to talk about it.”

Hector acknowledged, “I don’t like to talk about a situation too long. I’ll walk away when I feel the time limit is up. She wants to continue to talk. I give her the silent treatment; then she gives me the silent treatment. This is counterproductive.”

We taught them the “PREP Speaker-Listener Technique.” She learned to state an issue in a few sentences.  As the Listener, he could only paraphrase, not rebut, what she said.  Only when she felt he understood the issue, could he be the Speaker, giving his side of it; then she was the Listener, paraphrasing him. This skill made her more succinct and him, listen better.

4.  Move apart and stop sex.  Two-thirds of couples cohabit before marriage. As mentioned, they are more likely to divorce than those who live apart until they marry. Another Penn State study reports that even a month’s cohabitation made both partners more negative and demeaning. Hector and Teresa argued over so many things, we wondered why they were engaged.

When we urged them to separate, they refused, noting they had already bought a home. We suggested they move into separate bedrooms and stop sex till the wedding. For months they refused until they went on an Engaged Encounter weekend where men and women slept in   separate dorms.  There they made so much progress discussing issues that Teresa insisted on signing our “Optional Premarital Sexual Covenant.”  (This sounds old fashioned, but 86 percent of the 61 couples we personally mentored, signed the Covenant, and none have divorced in two decades.)

Overnight they had new self-respect and mutual respect. After four months of chastity, they married and called us after their honeymoon, saying “Thank you for giving us a fabulous honeymoon.”

Years later they credit their flourishing marriage to rigorous marriage preparation.

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