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March 5, 2008
Column #1,384
"Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers"
by Mike McManus

The disintegration of marriage is America's central domestic problem, causing poverty, poor academic performance, depression, crime and suicide. Yet no presidential candidate has addressed this issue. It has three elements:

1. The marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970. Of those aged 30-44, only 6.8 percent had never married in 1970;  that tripled to 20.4 percent by 2005.

2.  America's divorce rate is the world's highest, with 42 million divorces since 1970 -  one for every two marriages, shattering the lives of 40 million children.

3. Out-of-wedlock births jumped 7-fold from 224,000 to 1.6 million children.

Cohabitation is driving these trends, soaring 12-fold from 430,000 in 1960 to 5.4 million in 2006. Couples living together are likely children of divorce or unwed parents. They fear marriage and believe that living together is a "trial marriage."

That is a myth. What four out of five experience is really a "trial divorce." The only question is whether they will break up before the wedding or afterwards.

My wife, Harriet, and I wrote a book, "Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers," published this week by Howard Books. It outlines proven solutions that any church can adopt to virtually divorce-proof their couples. 

St. Paul wrote, "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (I Thes. 5:21-22). With an 85 percent chance of failure, couples who cohabit are embracing evil. However, there is a way for couples to test their relationship that holds onto the good. It involves four elements:

1.  Take a premarital inventory, a detailed questionnaire which asks couples whether they agree or disagree with 150+ statements such as:

- At times I am concerned about the silent treatment I get from my future spouse.
- I am concerned that my future spouse spends money foolishly.

A tenth of couples taking an inventory decide NOT to marry. Studies show they have scores equal to those who marry and later divorce.  They avoid a bad marriage before it begins. Yet only a third of couples who marry take an inventory, such as FOCCUS or PREPARE.

2.  Meet with a Mentor Couple who will give the inventory and discuss issues it surfaces. For example, Harriet and I mentored Hector and Teresa, a cohabiting couple who had separate banking accounts. He bought a new car without her support. I asked him if he thought, "I earned this money. I should be able to decide how to spend it."

He nodded, "That's right." I countered, "The money you spend on the car means there's less money for your wedding, your honeymoon or furniture."

Harriet added, "You are living as if you were independent people. Marriage is about interdependence. A joint checking account means accountability. It builds oneness."

3.  Learn skills of communication. Hector and Teresa both agreed with an inventory item: "I would like to change the way we solve problems."  She said, "One thing I do not like is one person walking away when they don't want to talk about it."

Hector acknowledged, "I don't like to talk about a situation too long. I'll walk away when I feel the time limit is up. She wants to continue to talk about it. I give her the silent treatment; then she gives me the silent treatment. This is counterproductive."

We taught them the "PREP Speaker-Listener Technique." She learned to state an issue in a few sentences.  As the Listener, he could only paraphrase, not rebut, what she said.  Only when she felt he understood the issue, could he be the Speaker, giving his side of it; then she was the Listener, paraphrasing him. This skill made her more succinct and him, listen better.

4.  Move apart and stop sex.  Two-thirds of couples cohabit before marriage. They are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those living apart. A Penn State study reports that even a month's cohabitation made both partners more negative and demeaning. Hector and Teresa argued over so many things, we wondered why they were engaged.

When we urged them to separate, they refused, noting they had already bought a home. We suggested they move into separate bedrooms and stop sex till the wedding. For months they refused until they went on an Engaged Encounter weekend where men and women slept separately.  They made so much progress discussing issues, Teresa insisted on signing our "Optional Premarital Sexual Covenant." 

Overnight they had new self-respect and mutual respect. After four months of chastity, they married and called us after their honeymoon, saying "Thank you for giving us a fabulous honeymoon."

Four years later they credit their flourishing marriage to rigorous marriage preparation.

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