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February 13, 2008
Column #1,381
Advance for Feb. 16, 2008
An Unhappy Valentine's Day Message
By Mike McManus

The current "Atlantic Monthly" features a courageous article by Lori Gottlieb entitled "Marry Him!" At age 38, though unmarried, she had a child by artificial insemination, and now at 41 expresses regret that she did not marry one of her many prospects at a younger age.

"She asks, "Is it better to be alone, or to settle? My advice is this: Settle! That's right. Don't worry about passion or intense connection. Don't nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling `Bravo!' in movie theaters... Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go."

As she looks back, she sighs, "What I didn't realize when I decided in my 30s, to break up with boyfriends I might otherwise have ended up marrying, is that while settling seems like an enormous act of resignation when you're looking at it as a single person, once you take the plunge and do it, you'll probably be relatively content.  It sounds obvious now, but I didn't fully appreciate back then that what makes for a good marriage isn't necessarily what makes for a good romantic relationship."

Having a child vastly increases her odds of never finding "Mr. Right."

As she writes, "Once you have a baby alone, not only do you age about 10 years in the first 10 months, but if you don't have time to shower, eat...or even leave the house except for work, where you spend every waking moment that your child is at day care, there's very little chance that a man - much less The One - is going to knock on your door and join THAT party."

In this Valentine's week, it is sad to note that millions of men and women have let the possibility of marriage pass them by.  In 1970, only 6.8 percent of those aged 30-44 had never married.  That tripled to 20.4 percent by 2005.  These stark numbers understate the problem. There were only 2.3 million never-married 30-44 year-olds in 1970, but 12.9 million in 2005.

Sadly, Ms. Gottlieb's decision to have a baby out-of-wedlock is also common, though her means of doing so is unusual.  There were 1.6 million babies born to unwed mothers in 2006 - nearly two-fifths of all births. Three-quarters are born to cohabiting or romantically involved couples.

In fact, 2 million unmarried households have children living with them - 41 percent of all such couples. That is virtually the same as the 45 percent of married couples with kids under 18.

What is the stealth killer of marriage in America?

It is the soaring pattern of cohabitation.  The number of couples who were living together in any month of 2006 was 5.4 million couples - 12 times the 430,000 doing so in 1960.

Cohabitation is a double cancer of marriage.  "First it is an invisible cancer at the front end diverting tens of millions from getting married at all," my wife and I write in our new book to be released by Howard Books next month, "Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers." There were 21 million never-married Americans in 1970, but 52 million in 2005. That's a 148 percent growth, triple the 46 percent increase of population.

One tragic consequence is that America's marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970.  If the same percentage of couples were marrying this year as did so in 1970, there would be 3.3 million marriages, not 2.2 million.

"Second, cohabitation is a deadly cancer at the center of marriage. Couples who live together are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who never cohabited, according to Dr. Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin," we note.

One prevalent myth about cohabitation is that "Living together is a step toward marriage."  Actually, it is a step toward breakup - either before or after the wedding. Nearly half of cohabiting couples break up short of marriage. Most of the rest will divorce.

A new study by Dr. Bumpass and Sheela Kennedy states that the proportion of couples "who cohabited before marriage reached 62 percent" for 1997-2002, up from 57% in the early 1990s. Today it is probably two-thirds.

Curiously, 86 percent of those couples are married by clergy. "Churches of all denominations wink at cohabitation," we observe. "By not asking these couples to live separately, the clergy were unwittingly but certainly condemning many of them to divorce."

However, my wife and I have trained thousands of Mentor Couples in churches to help premarital couples build  a stable marriage with a lifelong Valentine.

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