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June 10, 2000
Column #980

''Sex Without Strings, Relationships Without Rings''

     Why has the marriage rate dropped by one-third since 1970?

     ''The mating culture for today's 20-somethings is not oriented toward marriage, as it has been in times past, nor is it dedicated to romantic love. Instead it is best described as a low-commitment culture of sex without strings, relationships without rings,'' according to a new report of the National Marriage Project, ''The State of Our Unions 2000,'' based on interviews with ''focus groups'' of unmarried, non-college graduates (73% of those aged 25-29) living in five metro areas: Northern New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles.

     ''Although the study participants expect their future marriages to last a lifetime and to fulfill their deepest emotional and spiritual needs, they are involved in a mating culture that may make it more difficult to achieve this lofty goal,'' says Dr. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-author of the study with Dr. David Popenoe.

     These men and women rarely volunteer the word ''love'' or ''falling in love,'' but rather talk about ''sex'' and ''relationships.'' Mimicking TV sitcoms, such as ''Sex in the City,'' they believe ''Sex is for fun, a taken-for-granted freedom and pleasure of being young and single. Both men and women regard casual sex as an expected part of the dating scene. Only a few take a moralistic stand against it. Both men and women also agree that casual sex is no-strings-attached sex....These men and women see lying, cheating and dumping as unremarkable behavior.''

     Relationships require ''greater investments of time and effort'' and ''higher ethical standards than casual sex. Trust, honesty and sexual fidelity are expected.'' One popular form of relationship is cohabitation, which is ''replacing marriage as the first living together union for today's young adults.'' Slightly less than half of these young people are cohabiting or have done so. Almost all men say ''You should not marry a woman until you have lived with her first.''

     Why? First, they argue the only way to ''find out about the habits, character and fidelity'' of a partner is the 24/7 plan, living with them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Second, they want to ''test compatibility, possibly for future marriage.'' Third, these young men and women say ''they live together as a way of avoiding the risks of divorce or being trapped in an unhappy marriage.''

     Sadly, these young people are mistaken. The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University published a report last year confirming earlier studies that those who cohabit before marriage are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who do not live together.

     These ''trial marriages'' should be called ''trial divorces,'' because the vast majority will either learn the pain of ''pre-marital divorce,'' breaking up before there is a wedding, or will divorce afterwards. This sex-drenched culture has resulted in a doubling of never-married Americans, soaring from 21 million in 1970 to 46.6 million in 1998, according to Census.

     As I read this compelling report, I thought, ''The church is partly to blame for this disaster. When was the last time you heard a sermon on cohabitation, chastity or even marriage? Never?

     Surely, Scripture is clear: ''Flee fornication,'' Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He elaborated in I Thessalonians 4:3-8, which says, in part, ''Each of you should learn to control his body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen who do not know God.''

     Interestingly, secular studies prove the wisdom of Scripture. A University of Maryland study found that those who marry as virgins have much lower divorce rates than the sexually active. Only 14 percent of those who married as virgins from 1980-1983 were divorced by 1988, but 24 percent of the non-virgins had divorced. That is two-thirds higher than the chaste!

     Churches are also failing to offer practical alternatives to young people. Rev. Dick Dunn, who created one of the largest singles programs in America at Roswell (GA)United Methodist Church, says, ''I doubt that one percent of Methodist Churches have a singles program.''

     A second practical alternative is to train couples in solid, long-term marriages to offer seriously dating couples the opportunity to take a premarital inventory, such as PREPARE or FOCCUS, to help the couple test their strengths and areas for growth - without cohabitation.

     In our church, my wife and I have trained Mentor Couples who have worked with 292 couples considering marriage or preparing for it since 1992. Of that number about 50 broke apart before the wedding but of the 230 who have married, there have been only six divorces in eight years. This is the ''marriage insurance'' young couples are looking for.

     To see the need for such interventions, download the Rutgers report on the web:

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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