Speaking out about living together before marriage

LIVING TOGETHER before marriage ranks as one of the most seismic social revolutions of the late 20th century.

Between 1960 and 2000, the number of cohabiting couples increased tenfold, soaring from 430,000 to more than 5 million. During this same period, the marriage rate dropped 37 percent. A "live and let live" tolerance prevails, seeming to mock moral standards as "quaint" and "irrelevant."

Younger Americans, in particular, are far more likely to see benefits in cohabitation, a new Gallup poll reports. It finds that 51 percent of those under 50 lived with their spouses before marriage. Only 1 in 3 in that group says living together is more likely to lead to divorce.

Scholars disagree about whether unwed domesticity assures a happy marriage. Some studies show that those who live together are more likely to divorce than those who do not. As many as half of these couples eventually divorce.

No uncertainty clouds Michael McManus's opinion. As president of Marriage Savers, a national organization, he calls cohabitation a huge problem. Rather than being a step toward marriage, as many couples assume, he views it as a step away from it, lessening commitment.

He outlines a common pattern: "They live with someone, then it breaks up. They live with someone else and it breaks up. At 37, they wonder why they're not married. If they had courted the first potential spouse in the proper way, they could well be happily married to that person today."

Mr. McManus faults churches for not speaking out against living together. Too many clergy close their eyes to the issue, he says, even though three-quarters of couples marry in a church. They are missing an opportunity to give guidance that couples may long for without realizing it.

During visits to churches in nearly 100 cities, McManus has asked ministers and priests if they have preached on this subject. Only 1 in 50 has. He tells them, "You're part of the problem. If you're not willing to address this from the pulpit, whose job is it? The mayor? The school superintendent?"

To help them become part of the solution, McManus is rewriting a manual for clergy to include cohabitation issues.

Religious voices could help parents as well. In white churches, very few cohabiting couples attend services, he says. But these congregations include many parents whose children are living together.

"Parents do not know what to say to their kids," McManus finds. "Parents need to be able to say, 'What you're doing here is courting disaster.' " He adds, "It's time for women to realize they're fools for playing this role. They should say, 'If you want to live with me, then let's get married.' "

In the marriage preparation classes McManus and his wife, Harriet, give at their evangelical Presbyterian church in Maryland, they ask cohabiting couples to move apart. They even ask them to practice chastity until the wedding. "How antediluvian is that?" he says with a laugh.

Maybe not quite as antediluvian as it might seem. Across the conservative South, some thoroughly modern brides-to-be are suddenly conscience-stricken about living with their fianc├ęs. In what some are calling "secondary virginity," they are abstaining from sex for several months before the wedding.

Could these efforts mark the first small steps in a change of attitude toward cohabitation? Many couples will resist such messages, arguing that a test run helps to determine compatibility.

Still, little by little, a chorus of reasoned voices, religious and secular, could make a difference, helping couples turn a casual "I might" into a committed "I do."

Will those voices have the courage to speak?

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