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May 14, 2005

Column #1,236


                    The Living Together Myth                            


     Why was Jennifer Wilbanks a runaway bride?


     Some hypothesize that she was under stress due to her elaborate wedding with 14 bridesmaids and 600 guests. I believe the issue goes much deeper.


     She bought the myth that it is smart to live together before marrying. But she was deeply troubled about the prospective marriage, and did not know how to stop the train of events.


     Few brides hop a bus to flee across country to escape the wedding. But of 5 million couples currently living together, 2.25 million will break up short of the wedding.


     The conventional wisdom is "Try on the shoe before you buy it." Bad analogy. A shoe has no feelings if it is rejected. But the person who is cast aside in a "premarital divorce" suffers agony similar to a spouse who endures an unsought real divorce.


     Yet those who buy the living together myth have soared from 430,000 in 1960 to 5 million today. Cohabitation is the dominant way male-female unions are formed - not marriage. Only 2.2 million marry in a whole year.


      In fact, if the same percentage of people married today as in 1970, there would be a million more marriages a year.


     The myth of living together as a step toward marriage has diverted tens of millions from even marrying. There were 21 million never married adults in 1970, but 52 million in 2003. Of those aged 30-44 in 1970, only 13.4 percent were unmarried. That figure that has more than tripled to 44.2 percent.


     Another living together myth is that it will produce more stable marriages.


     In fact, couples who lived together before marriage are profoundly more unhappy, fight more, commit more adultery and are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited. A new study reports that even a month of cohabitation hurts a future marriage.


     This is secular evidence that Scripture is correct: "Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed be kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."


     Yet have you ever heard a sermon on living together? I bet not. Why not?  Pastors are flummoxed by this issue. They do not know what to say.


     Fortunately, there is an answer, suggested by Paul's letter to the Thessalonians: "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil."


     Couples who live together to test the relationship are embracing evil. 


     A better way to test the relationship is to take a premarital inventory which asks the man and the woman to indicate whether they agree or disagree with 150+ statements:


     "My future spouse sometimes puts me down. My family approves of my future spouse."


     A tenth of those who take a premarital inventory, decide not to marry. Their scores are equal to those who marry and later divorce. They have avoided a bad marriage before it began.


     It is ideal if the couple discusses the issues on the questionnaire with a mature couple in a vibrant marriage than with a pastor. A trained mentor couple can devote 5-6 sessions discussing all of the inventory items while a pastor might give only an hour for feedback.


     In my home church my wife and I trained mentor couples to administer an

inventory and to teach skills to improve the premarital couple's ability to resolve conflict. Reactions?


     "The inventory helped us in ways we did not expect. Issues came to the

surface that are relevant/critical to our relationship," wrote one woman on an evaluation form. A man said the inventory "was extremely important because it allowed me to see things that may become an issue later in marriage. We have a lot of differences to discuss."


     The mentoring? "Our mentoring experience was wonderful! Our mentors

demonstrated tremendous patience and wisdom in sharing with us and in helping us talk through the issues in our relationship. We learned a lot from them."


     Of 288 couples prepared from 1992 through 2000, 21 couples dropped out,

mostly to break up. Another 34 couples completed marriage preparation but decided not to marry. Thus, 18 percent of couples didn't marry.


     Of those who married, there have been only seven divorces or separations. That is a three percent failure rate over a decade or a 97 percent success rate.


     Compare that with 100 couples who live together: 45 break up short of marriage. Ten continue to cohabit. Of the 45 who marry, 33 will divorce, leaving only 12 couples still married.


     Those numbers explode the living together myth.


     Jennifer Wilbanks deserved a more appropriate way to test her relationship.

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