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Feb. 2, 2011

Column #1,536

Modesto’s Answer to Marital Breakdown

By Mike McManus

                America’s central domestic issue, the breakdown of marriage, is ignored by politicians. 

                First, few are marrying.  Indeed, the marriage rate has plunged 53% since 1970. There are only two million marriages a year, when there should be three million. 

Why?  Many who were children of divorce, fear marriage. Cohabitation has soared 14-fold from 530,000 in 1970 to 7.5 million now.  Couples believe they can test their compatibility in a “trial marriage,” to see if their relationship is strong enough for a full-fledged commitment.

Seems logical, but it’s a myth.  As one marriage educator puts it, “You can’t practice permanence.”  Of the 7.5 million couples living together, only 1.4 million marry.  What about the 6 million who break up?  They experience “premarital divorce,” which is so painful that never-married Americans tripled, from 21 million in 1970 to 63 million in 2008.

But those who marry after cohabiting have better marriages, right? 

Nope. Another myth.  A Penn State study reports such couples are 63% more likely to divorce than those who remained apart.

That’s why the numbers of America’s divorces remained high even while marriage rates have plunged.

Soaring cohabitation is the engine driving unwed births, which have exploded from 5% of all births to 41%. Children of non-marriage have the dimmest prospects in life.  Example: they are 22 times more likely to be incarcerated than a child of married parents. 

This is secular evidence Paul was right when he urged the Corinthians to “flee sexual immorality.”

Fortunately, there are answers.  Twenty-five years ago last week, the clergy of Modesto, CA adopted America’s first Community Marriage Policy, which was ultimately signed by 95 Protestant pastors and Catholic priests plus one rabbi. 

They were the first clergy to pledge, across denominational lines, to require all couples getting married in a city to take a premarital inventory to help them assess their relationship strengths, and where they needed to grow.  The PREPARE-ENRICH inventory, for example, asks couples whether they agree or disagree on 150+ statements such as:

·         To end an argument, I tend to give in too quickly.

·         Sometimes I wish my partner were more careful about spending money.

Clergy also trained mentor couples in healthy marriages, to meet with premarital couples for 5-6 sessions over four months to discuss the issues identified on their inventory. These marriage mentors also taught skills of communication and conflict resolution.

The clergy set this new pastoral standard for Modesto in 1986 as a result of a speech I made in which I predicted that if they adopted these strategies, that the city’s divorce rate could be cut in half in five years.  Within two years, the divorce rate was dropping. By 2001 the divorce rate had plunged by 57%.  More important, for the entire past decade, the divorce rate has been about half of what it had been.

                What difference has this Community Marriage Policy made?

                Look at the lives of Modesto children. For a decade the teen birth rate has been down 30%, and high school dropouts have fallen 18.4%.  If kids are brought up in homes by their own married parents, they will fare better in life.

                Furthermore, the number of marriages has doubled from 1,300 to 2,600!  Though that is due in  part to an increase of population, there has been a genuine increase in the marriage rate, in sharp contrast to the 53% plunge in marriage rates nationally.

In the Modesto covenant, the clergy declared, “Our hope is to radically reduce the divorce rate of those married in area churches.”

Clearly, more than that has been accomplished.

Modesto’s success encouraged me to research other answers. Four examples:

1.      Enriching marriages: “10 Great Dates” is a series of brief DVD talks on such topics as “Resolving Honest Conflict” and “Becoming an Encourager.” Couples come to church 10 evenings to watch them and then have a date to discuss the assigned issue

2.      Restore distressed marriages by training couples whose own marriages once nearly failed to mentor those in current crisis, saving four out of five of them.

3.      Reconcile the separated with a course, “Marriage 911,” taken by a spouse whose partner wants out, typically with a same-gender friend. Result: half the marriages are saved.

4.      Help stepfamilies who divorce at a 70% rate, create a Stepfamily Support Group  saving 80% of them

My wife and I have helped 10,000 clergy in 229 cities to implement these strategies in Community Marriage Policies.  On average divorce rates have fallen 17.5% saving 100,000 marriages, cohabitation has decreased by a third, and marriage rates are rising.

Churches can cooperate to create a new marriage culture. How? Go To www.marriagesavers.org.

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