Taking the life of cohabitation for a test drive before committing to a marriage has become enormously popular. And yet, with the failure of so many cohabiting relationships, and the swollen divorce rates of couples who cohabit before marriage, such a widespread cultural practice deserves critical examination. Michael McManus, coauthor of Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, and President of Marriage Savers, a nonprofit organization, discusses the deleterious effects of cohabitation in an interview with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s so bad about living together?
Michael McManus: Couples who live together are gambling and losing in 85 percent of the cases. Many believe the myth that they are in a “trial marriage.” Actually it is more like a “trial divorce,” in which more than eight out of ten couples will break up either before the wedding or afterwards in divorce. First, about 45 percent of those who begin cohabiting, do not marry. Those who undergo “premarital divorce” often discover it is as painful as the real thing. Another 5-10 percent continue living together and do not marry. These two trends are the major reason the marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970. Couples who cohabit are likely to find that it is a paultry substitute for the real thing, marriage.
Of the 45 percent or so who do marry after living together, they are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who remained separate before the wedding.
So instead of 22 of the 45 couples divorcing (the 50 percent divorce rate) about 33 will divorce.
That leaves just 12 couples who have begun their relationship with cohabitation who end up with a marriage lasting 10 years.
Lopez: Isn’t it practical sometimes?
McManus: No, never. A Penn State study reports that even a month’s cohabitation decreases the quality of the couple’s relationship. Cameras were placed in living rooms, which recorded that couples who began their relationship living together were more negative when they discussed an issue, more demeaning, more flippant, more likely to deride the other person. Couples who had never cohabited, by contrast, have much more respect for one another, and settled issues more amicably. Thus, negative patterns of behavior learned in cohabitation came into the marriages and destroyed a higher percentage of them.
Lopez: I’m stuck on the practical, forgive me. But you recommend that cohabitating couples move out before they get married. Is that ever realistic? Or do couples just laugh at the suggestion?
McManus: Given the fact that cohabitating couples are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who remained apart, there is no more important step that could increase the couple’s odds of a lifelong marriage than separating before the wedding. Is it practical? You bet! Is it likely? No. Not without a supportive couple mentoring the premarital couple who make arguments based on data and psychology that is persuasive. We have persuaded some couples to separate, and others to at least move into separate bedrooms and stop having sex until the wedding. That discipline increases each person’s self-respect and respect for their partner. We tell the story of a couple who took this step in Chapter 9 of our new book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers. The couple had no sex for four months. They went on a honeymoon to the Caribbean, flew back to Miami to change planes, and called us from the airport. I picked up the phone. They said, “Mike, get Harriet on the phone.” Then they told us, “Thank you for giving us a fantastic honeymoon!”
Lopez: What was it that got you starting Marriage Savers in the first place?
McManus: I have written a nationally syndicated newspaper column called “Ethics & Religion” since 1981. I regularly wrote columns on some of the answers for better ways to prepare for, enrich, or restore troubled marriages. For example, I wrote that of couples who took a premarital inventory, a tenth decided not to marry. And their scores were equal to those who married and later divorced. So they avoided a bad marriage before it had begun. Catholics required a minimum time of marriage preparation of six months during which couples took a premarital inventory, while most Protestant churches had no time requirement or inventory. And Catholic divorce rates were 50 percent lower than Protestants. I reported that four out of five couples who attended a Marriage Encounter fell back in love with their spouses, to encourage more couples to go.
However, I could see no impact of my columns. In 1983 I was invited to speak to clergy in some cities publishing my column, and suggested that the city’s divorce rate might be cut in half if the pastors of that city required 4-6 months of preparation in which all premarital couples take an inventory and meet with trained Mentor Couples to discuss issues that surfaced. I also urged churches to hold an annual marriage enrichment event.
But when I gave that speech in Columbus, GA, Biddeford, Maine, Shreveport, and Long Beach, Cal. — nothing happened. So when a newspaper invited me to Modesto, CA I opened with a prayer: “Lord, you know I have given this speech in five other cities where nothing happened. I ask you to give me the words today — or the ears — that could make a difference.” Those pastors signed America’s first Community Marriage Policy in January, 1986. By 2000 their divorce rate had fallen in half! We will travel to Bedford, Ind. on April 4-5 for the signing of the nation’s 222nd Community Marriage Policy. Clergy in Elizabethtown, Ken., will sign one a week later, and West Palm Beach, on April 25. Following each event, my wife, Harriet, and I train clergy and Mentor Couples to implement proven marital strategies.