Politics & Policy

No Way to Live

Cohabitation in America.

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.


Lopez: What would you say to a young person considering “moving in” with a boyfriend or girlfriend?

McManus: Do not move in with one another until you are married. This role is one you cannot audition for. You can’t practice permanence. If you want to test the relationship in an appropriate way, take a premarital inventory such as FOCCUS or PREPARE, and meet with a couple in a healthy marriage, to discuss your relationship. We at Marriage Savers have worked with 10,000 pastors and priests in 221 cities to create a group of churches committed to helping couples prepare for a lifelong marriage. Call (301) 469-5873 to see if we have trained mentor couples near you.

Lopez: You’re against cohabitation. What about premarital sex? Is that inviting problems too?

McManus:Yes, even though most people see nothing wrong with premarital sex, research shows they are wrong. Those couples who married in the 1960s who were virgins were much less likely to divorce than the sexually active — only 30 percent of virgins divorced, while 50 percent of the sexually active divorced. The same pattern can be seen of those who married in the early 1980s. By 1988, 14 percent of virgins had divorced, but 24 percent of the sexually active. That’s 71 percent higher. St. Paul wrote, “Flee fornication.”

When we train Mentor Couples, we train them to administer an “Optional Premarital Sexual Covenant,” in which premarital couples are asked to pledge to remain chaste until the wedding. Once couples see the data outlined above, 43 of the 49 couples we have personally mentored chose to stop having sex. None have divorced that we know of. Of 288 couples our church prepared, using the Optional Covenant, 55 decided not to marry. But of the 233 others, there were only 7 divorces or separations in a decade. That is virtual marriage insurance.

Lopez: You talk about building barriers of protection and reference Billy Graham, who wouldn’t be alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife and wouldn’t ride in a car with his secretary. Isn’t that a little silly?

McManus: No, it was not silly for a man like Billy Graham who has been a world famous figure since 1949. He has gone to a hotel room after speaking at a Crusade and found a naked woman in his bed. Imagine what would have happened to his career, if he had been caught in such a situation. I interviewed Dr. Graham and asked him how he was never caught in a compromising situation, and he said, “I build moats around myself (to keep sexual temptation at bay). I will not ride in a car with a woman who is not my wife.” That also prevented speculation by others that he “was involved” with another woman. Similarly, his board decided what his pay would be, and he turned all book royalties over to his Billy Graham Crusade. So he has never had a charge of financial irregularity.

Lopez: How prevalent is child abuse in cohabitating situations?

McManus: Children of cohabiting parents are perhaps ten times more likely to be sexually abused by a stepparent than by a parent. They are three times as likely to be expelled from school or to get pregnant as teenagers than children from an intact home with married parents. And they are five times more apt to live in poverty, and 22 times more likely to incarcerated.

Lopez: Is there really any hope for turning the culture away from cohabitation if even clergy aren’t taking a principled and practical stand against it?

McManus: No. The only long-term hope for reversing the culture’s embrace of cohabitation is for the church to exercise the moral leadership we expect of the clergy. Churches are the gatekeepers of weddings, marrying 86 percent of all American couples. If they succumb to Hollywood’s standards, there is no hope. But churches can educate, equip and elevate marriage to the position of honor it deserves. As Harriet and I write in our book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, “Organized religion has unwittingly contributed to America’s high divorce and soaring cohabitation rates. But it can become the architect of a new culture that honors marriage once again.”

Lopez: Do some churches/religions do marriage prep better than others?

McManus:Yes, Catholics do a much better job and are more likely to require couples to take a premarital inventory, and to undergo a six-month process of Pre-Cana preparation. Only 25 percent of Catholics have divorced compared to 39 percent of Protestants, according to a Barna poll. Unbelievers divorce at a 37 percent rate — lower than Protestants! Sadly, only about a third of premarital couples get a premarital inventory – 800,000 out of the 2.2 million who marry in a year.

Lopez: Why is your program so successful?

McManus: Marriage Savers trains couples in healthy marriages — who can be found in any church — to be Mentor Couples to prepare couples for marriage. On average, they invest 18 hours over 3-4 months, a lavish investment of time. Most premarital inventories are administered by clergy, but they can only take an hour or so to review 150 issues on the inventory. We train Mentor Couples to meet for 6 sessions and give 2-3 hours per session. For many of those considering marriage, or preparing for it, this is the first time they have seen a solid marriage up close. Only 44 percent of U.S. teenagers are living with their own married parents. Mentors thus become role models as well as loving facilitators. Mentoring also strengthens the marriages of the mentors.

Lopez: What’s so important about divorce reform?

McManus: At present, so-called No Fault Divorce allows either spouse to unilaterally file for divorce, without proving any particular fault, such as adultery or abuse. The divorce is always granted, in violation of the 5th Amendment’s guarantee of “due process” of law. Marriage Savers believes that, at least in cases involving children, divorce should not be granted unless both agree. If no grievous fault is alleged, divorce should only be granted by mutual consent. I served on a Virginia Marriage Commission that recommended replacing No Fault Divorce with Mutual Consent. Experts estimate that a state which replaced No Fault with Mutual Consent would see a 30-percent drop in the divorce rate.

Marriage Savers has also urged that in cases of divorce involving children, that Sole Custody be replaced with Joint Custody or Shared Parenting. Sole Custody virtually removes one parent from the lives of children. Shared Parenting would give both parents at least one-third time every week with their children. Of six states which passed Joint Custody laws in the 1990s, five had the largest drop in the divorce rate: Montana, Kansas, Connecticut, Idaho, and Alaska. Why? “If a parent knows they will have to interact with the child’s other parent while the child is growing up, there is less incentive to divorce,” says David Levy, President of the Children’s Rights Council. This reform would drop divorce rates by another 20 percent.

Thus, Mutual Consent and Shared Parenting could slash America’s divorce rate in half, saving 500,000 children a year from the anguish of seeing their parents divorce.

Lopez: Do we need a marriage amendment to help protect and bolster marriage?

McManus: Yes. Even though Californians voted in a referendum to limit marriage to a man and a woman a decade ago, the Legislature is moving to approve same-sex marriage. Some 27 states have limited marriage to a man and a woman by putting it into their state constitutions. But Massachusetts has approved same-sex marriage and other states, such as New Hampshire and Connecticut, have approved “civil unions,” which are marriages in all but name. My own state of Maryland is moving to approve “domestic partnerships,” with all the rights of marriage. I testified against the bill, to no avail. The only long-term hope for preserving traditional, heterosexual marriage is a Federal Marriage Amendment. However, I believe divorce is a much greater threat to traditional marriage than gay marriage.

Lopez: You’d like to hear presidential candidates talk about marriage. What do you want them to say? Why is it any of their business?

McManus: We at Marriage Savers believe that the central domestic problem of our time is not the recession, but the disintegration of marriage. Three facts outline that deterioration:

1. America’s marriage rate has plunged 50 percent since 1970. If the same percentage of couples were marrying in 2008 as in 1970, there would be 3.3 million marriages, not 2.2 million. Tens of millions are not marrying. There were only 21 million never-married Americans in 1970, but 60 million in 2006, a tripling!

2. The nation’s divorce rate is the world’s highest, with one divorce for every two marriages every year since 1970. That’s 42 million divorces shattering the lives of 40 million kids. Those children deserve a better future.

3. Out-of-wedlock births have soared from 224,000 in 1960 to 1.6 million in 2006, a seven-fold increase. These children, like those of divorce, are three times as likely to emotional, academic and behavioral problems that dropouts, delinquency and pregnancy.

Presidential candidates should be asked whether they approve of federal incentives to encourage the states to pass laws to slash divorce rates in half — replacing No Fault Divorce with Mutual Consent, and the presumption of Sole Custody with Shared Parenting. For example, the federal government might increase welfare payments (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF) by 5-10 percent if they approved of these reforms of divorce law that could reduce divorce by 50 percent.

Lopez: Of the presidential candidates, who is most likely to do this?

McManus: I have not had any contact with the staff of any presidential candidate, and can only speculate on who might be most responsive. Some argue that Sen. McCain would never do so, because he divorced his first wife. However, he has had a stable second marriage for decades, and might be open to an initiative that would resonate deeply with his conservative Republican base. Fewer broken marriages would save taxpayers billions. The Heritage Foundation estimates that the cost of non-marriages and divorce cost America $185 billion in welfare, food stamps, housing subsidies, etc. A higher percentage of Republicans are married, compared to Democrats, which would seem to make McCain more likely to back divorce reform than his Democratic opponents.

However, a Democratic presidential nominee might be willing to support divorce reforms that would lower the federal deficit, while giving children and parents a brighter future. Sen. Obama would probably be more inclined to back divorce reform than Sen. Clinton, since he is courting Independents and Republicans as well as Democrats. However, Sen. Clinton wrote a book saying it takes a village to raise a child. Certainly, that has to begin with married parents. Two thirds of Americans oppose state laws that make divorce easy. I hope the Presidential candidates, and especially those running for governor or state legislatures will be asked where they stand on Mutual Consent and Shared Parenting.


The Latest