Better Together? Only in holy matrimony, not in cohabitation
By Mike McManus
March 13, 2008
Decades of high divorce rates have given rise to a generation
of young adults who fear marriage. In response, the statistics
show that many now live together to test their compatibility.
Since 1960, America has witnessed a 12-fold increase in
cohabitation from 430,000 couples to 5.4 million couples. At the
same time, there's been a 50 percent plunge in the marriage
rate, along with rising numbers of out-of-wedlock births.
Many of those 5.4 million couples, along with their friends and
neighbors, still believe the enduing myth that cohabitation
works as a sort of trial marriage. In reality, cohabitation
often becomes a trial divorce. The only question is whether
couples will split before or after their wedding. About 45
percent of cohabitating couples undergo what we call a
"premarital divorce," which can be as painful as the real thing.
The half who make it to the altar are about 50 percent more
likely to divorce than those who lived apart prior to marrying.
In the end, as few as 15 of every 100 couples who cohabit go on
to create a lasting marriage.
By contrast, a woman who lives with a man is three times more
likely to be physically abused than a married woman. If a
cohabitating couple breaks up, the woman is then 18 times more
likely to be harmed than a married woman. In addition,
infidelity for cohabiting men is four times that of married men;
for cohabiting women, infidelity is eight times more likely.
Paul wrote, "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every
kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:21-22). About two-thirds of married
couples now cohabit before marriage, and every study on the
arrangement shows that cohabitation is detrimental. Churches,
which still perform the vast majority of marriages in the U.S.,
are too often mute on the subject, marrying couples without
comment on their living arrangements. The good news is that we
can do better.
Congregations can train mentor couples to inform cohabiting
couples about the risks they are inviting into their
relationship. These mentors need to be able to administer
premarital inventories to help couples identify their
relationship's strengths and opportunities for growth. Mentors
can teach couples how to resolve conflict in a mutually
respectful way. They can also earn couples' trust and encourage
them to separate to reduce their challenges and increase their
relationships' chances of success.
About 800,000 couples take a premarital inventory every year, a
tenth of whom decide not to marry. They often have the same
scores as those who marry and divorce; thus, they've avoided a
bad marriage before it began.
My wife, Harriet, and I run a ministry called Marriage Savers
that trains mentor couples in principles of healthy marriages
and equips them to administer inventories. We encourage mentors
to talk through all 150 statements on these inventories, which
generally requires six sessions of more than two hours each. We
envision the marital wisdom of one generation being passed on to
Our results speak for themselves. Of the 288 couples that our
mentors have prepared for marriage during the past decade, 55
decided not to marry. Typically, only 1 percent of couples split
during premarital counseling, so a 19 percent breakup rate is
huge - and encouraging. Because of the 233 couples who did go on
to marry, only seven have divorced or separated. Suffice it to
say that a 97 percent success rate significantly beats the
According to David Popenhoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the
National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, the underlying
reason for the rise in cohabitation is a lack of male commitment
to marriage. They write, "Men experience few social pressures to
marry, gain many of the benefits of marriage by cohabiting with
a romantic partner, and are ever more reluctant to commit to
marriage in their early adult years."
Indeed, men and women enter into cohabitation for radically
different reasons. Men cohabit for easy availability of sex and
shared living expenses. Women do so as a step toward marriage.
What few understand is that cohabitation increases the odds that
they will never marry-or that they will divorce, if they do
marry. You can't practice permanence.
As we note in our new book,
Living Together: Myths,
Risks & Answers, we now know unequivocally that
cohabitation doesn't work. Churches - the gatekeepers of
weddings - can delay no longer. They must educate, equip, and
elevate marriage to the position of honor it deserves. Organized
religion has unwittingly contributed to America's high divorce
and rising cohabitation rates. But it can become the architect
of a new culture that honors marriage once again.
Mike McManus is a syndicated columnist and the president of