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The Worst and Best Ways To Prepare for Marriage

By Michael J. McManus

With half of all marriages ending in divorce, millions of young couples have decided to begin a trial marriage in which they live with each other to test whether the relationship works. In fact, cohabitation is now the dominant way seriously dating Americans decide whether to marry.

It is the worst possible preparation for marriage. Yet the Census Bureau reported in March 1970 that 523,000 unmarried couples were living together. In March 1993 the figure had shot up to 3.5 million couples—a sevenfold increase.

The University of Wisconsin conducted a National Survey of Families and Households in 1989 and came to similar conclusions. After interviewing 14,000 people in 100-minute personal interviews, reconstructing their sexual and marital history, the study found: "The proportion of first marriages that were preceded by cohabitation increased from 8 percent in the late 1960s to 49 percent among those in 1985-86," according to Dr. Larry Bumpass, the survey’s director. That percentage is well over 50 percent today, a decade later.

What was morally reprehensible for centuries—and derided as "shacking up" as recently as 1970—is now the accepted norm.

What is the consequence of widespread cohabitation?

The result is disaster. In fact, cohabitation is a double cancer of marriage. The survey reports that "about 40 percent of cohabiting unions in the United States break up without the couples getting married." Average duration: 1.3 years. Afterward they suffer from what might be called "premarital divorce."

Yet they rarely learn their lessons. In the next relationship, rather than wait until both are committed to marriage, people live with someone else. With what result? Cohabitation has become a substitute for marriage. It is thus a cancer at the front end of marriage. People who would have found marriage partners in an earlier generation are ending up in their thirties and forties having never married. Between 1970 and 1993 the number of never-married Americans doubled from 21 million singles to 42.6 million. Population grew only 20 percent. The number of never-married men age 35 to 39 soared fivefold from 557,000 in 1970 to 2.86 million in 1991.

Cohabitation is also a cancer at the center of marriage. The survey reports: "Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50 percent higher disruption (divorce or separation) rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation." Instead of a 50 percent risk of failure, those who live together first have a 75 percent risk of divorce.

Rarely Preached

Further, 1.2 million cohabiting couples have children, making it a major engine of illegitimacy. Another million kids a year see their parents divorce. Two million children every year are the victims of their parents’ selfishness.

In The American Enterprise Karl Zinsmeister wrote: "There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that when families disintegrate, children often end up with intellectual, physical, and emotional scars that persist for life…. We talk about the drug crisis, the education crisis, and the problem of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. But all these ills trace back predominantly to the source: broken families."

The little city of Holland, Michigan, has seen a 400 percent increase of crime caused by children in only 5 years. An elementary principal there said, "These children leave empty homes and return to empty homes. There are no adults to love them."

Yet when I spoke to a group of pastors recently in Ohio, I asked if they had ever preached a whole sermon on cohabitation. None had. "Have any of you preached a whole sermon on divorce?" Again, none had done so. "Then you are part of the problem," I asserted. Scripture is clear on these matters. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they were to "flee fornication." And Malachi said the blessings of some priests will be cursed by God. Why?

"For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble" (2:7,8*).

A few verses later Malachi discussed divorce: "You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings…. You ask, ‘Why?’ It is because the Lord is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the Lord made them one? …And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring…. ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel’" (2:13–16).

Those who divorce will feel that their prayers are not answered. And they will create ungodly offspring.

The Best Way to Prepare for Lifelong Marriage

If cohabitation is the wrong way to prepare for a lifelong marriage, what is the right way? About 200,000 engaged couples are fortunate enough to be in churches that know how to help people achieve two great goals: (1) Avoid a bad marriage before it begins. (2) Obtain marriage insurance as an engaged couple.

First, these churches administer a premarital inventory or a questionnaire for seriously dating couples and for the engaged. One of the best is called PREPARE (Premarital Personal and Relationship Evaluation). It consists of 125 statements to which both the man and the woman independently mark whether they agree or disagree.

The results are sent to prepare/enrich where they are tabulated by computer. What emerges is a remarkably accurate X ray of the couple’s strengths and weaknesses which are euphemistically called "growth areas." It can predict with about 80 percent accuracy which couples will divorce and which couples will have a happy marriage.

Of the 100,000 couples who participate each year, 10,000 actually break their engagements because their scores are so bad.

Good! Better a broken engagement than a broken marriage. Those who break their engagements have scores that are equal to those who marry and later divorce.

Thus PREPARE helps 10,000 couples a year avoid a bad marriage before it begins.1 Another 5,000 couples postpone their weddings until they work through the surfacing problems. However, for most of the 90 percent who go on to get married the premarital inventory not only puts a spotlight on conflicts the couple has to resolve but identifies how each partner contributes to the problem.

A premarital inventory can also be a bridge by which a younger generation taps the wisdom of an older generation. In my church2 my wife Harriet and I have trained 28 mentor couples, who have been married between two and five decades, to administer PREPARE. That is enough volunteers to assure every young couple personal attention. (Incidentally, we encourage seriously dating couples to attend our "Preparing for Marriage" workshop so they can use PREPARE in deciding whether to become engaged.) Each couple meets in the home of a mentor couple at least four times: once to get acquainted and take the inventory, at least twice to go over the results, and once 6 months to a year after the wedding.

One of PREPARE’s goals is to teach how to resolve conflicts by using "Ten Steps for Resolving Conflicts." In one case a young man told me these steps helped him and his fiancée over their conflict. They are like a ladder which we used to climb over the brick wall, he said. "We can now look at other walls and know we can climb the 10-step ladder to overcome them."

Other Elements of Marriage Insurance

While the three most important elements of deciding whether to marry someone are (1) taking a premarital inventory, (2) working with an older, solidly married couple to talk through the issues, and (3) test how well you work as a couple (using the "Ten Steps"), anyone who really wants marriage insurance should consider additional steps. Each will increase the odds of a lifelong marriage. To summarize them:

1. Chastity: If an unmarried couple is living together, my church will not marry them until they move apart and live separately for some months. We also ask even the engaged to consider signing a covenant to limit their sexual contact to no more than French kissing. In Chapter 5 of my book, Marriage Savers, I provide evidence that those who marry as virgins have much lower divorce rates than those who are sexually active. "Eros pushes out God," I argue. "If you want God as a third partner of your marriage, you have to play by His rules."

2. Lectures: A body of substantive information needs to be covered which we do in a series of eight lectures: male-female differences in communication, sex within marriage, resolving financial differences, conflict resolution, scriptural wisdom in building a lasting marriage. We ask knowledgeable lay leaders to give a weekly lecture.

3. Workbook: H. Norman Wright has written an excellent workbook, Before You Say "I Do," which requires couples to look up verses of Scripture on the various issues of marriage. It also requires them to develop a joint budget.

4. Engaged Encounter: This is the name of a weekend retreat which is the best single step a young couple can take to improve their communication skills. Married couples share intimate details of their marriage and then ask the engaged to write in a workbook answers to tough questions like, "What things do I talk to others more easily than I do with you?" "What are the things that make me angry with you?" "What doubts do I have in marrying you?" After writing an answer to each question, the couples exchange notebooks and talk about their answers.

A Final Word

Too many churches are preparing couples for weddings rather than for lifelong marriages. Three-fourths of all couples who marry in America do so in a church. Yet more than 50 percent are ending in divorce or separation. Clearly, most churches are only blessing machines or wedding factories.

However, they can be marriage savers, places where young people can really get a start on building a lifelong marriage.5

What God has joined together, let the church help hold together.

*Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

Michael J. McManus is a syndicated newspaper columnist writing on issues of ethics and religion, a radio commentator on family-related news, and former Time magazine correspondent. He and his wife Harriet live in Bethesda, Maryland. (For a review of his book, Marriage Savers, see page xx.)


To use PREPARE, pastors must attend a 5-hour training session run by PREPARE/ENRICH counselors with deep experience in using the instrument. There are 26,000 trained clergy and counselors in every city of the country. For a list of those with this experience in your area or for a schedule of training sessions that are held regularly in most states, write: PREPARE/ENRICH, Box 190, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55440-0190, or call (612) 331-1731. One part of the training is that the pastor must take a marital inventory called ENRICH. Therefore, I recommend that pastors take their spouses to the training event so that they get an X ray of their own strengths and weaknesses as a couple and an agenda of issues to work on to improve their own marriages.

Finally, once a pastor has had some experience with administering PREPARE, he can ask for a set of materials to be used in training mentor couples who can lighten his burden by administering PREPARE in their homes, as Harriet and I and 28 other couples in our church are now doing.

The kit costs $30, $25 of which is for the ENRICH inventory that they will take, and $5 is for the materials used to train couples in how to read the inventory.

In my view it is a mistake for clergy to do this whole task by themselves. It is better for a young couple to be able to sit down with an older, solidly married couple who can be more probing, transparent, and encouraging than a pastor can be. Every church has such couples who would love this ministry, but they have never been asked. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, said the job of the pastor is to "equip the saints for the work of ministry." What more important ministry is there than marriage saving!


Did you know that…

  • In March 1993, 3.5 million unmarried couples were living together a sevenfold increase since March 1970.
  • The proportion of first marriages that were preceded by cohabitation increased from 8 percent in the late 1960s to 49 percent in 1985-86.
  • About 40 percent of cohabiting unions in the United States break up without the couples getting married— average duration: 1.3 years.
  • Between 1970 and 1993 the number of never-married Americans doubled from 21 million singles to 42.6 million.
  • The number of never-married men age 35 to 39 soared fivefold from 557,000 in 1970 to 2.86 million in 1991.
  • Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50 percent higher disruption (divorce or separation) rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation.
  • 1.2 million cohabiting couples have children.