Book Review – “Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers”

When I find a good book review of a good book, I like to save it and pass it on. Such is the case with George Barna’s review of the book on Cohabitation by Mike and Harriet McManus. I learned from Smart Marriages that the McManus’ were surprised and delighted to hear that Dr. Laura is giving away free copies of the book on her radio show. I’d like to add my small part in promoting a good work. Here’s the review by George Barna:

You can see it in the declining number of people who get married. It is evident in the fact that the U.S. has the highest divorce rate among developed nations. You can sense its deterioration based on the effort to legitimize gay marriage. Even public opinion about the importance of marriage is slipping. This new book by Mike and Harriet McManus addresses a critical aspect of that problem: cohabitation.

Based on the McManus’s extensive experience with seeking to strengthen traditional marriages, this volume is a welcome addition to the practical literature on the subject, offering viable strategies for enhancing marriage as well as recent information about the state of marriage and cohabitation.

Early in the book you will read why cohabitation is something we should be paying attention to if we care about saving marriages. A useful tool is the list of myths about cohabitation. The book notes that people cohabit for a variety of reasons, but the result is generally the same, regardless of the motivation: a failed relationship, whether marriage ensued or not.

Among the reasons cited for the break-up of cohabiters are the mistrust of marriage, the lack of positive experience with marriage in their family of origin, the absence of male commitment, increasing cultural acceptance of both cohabitation and divorce, and financial benefits. Surprisingly few people seem to be aware of the risks inherent in cohabitation. Chief among those is the potential for experiencing violence. A different but no less significant risk is that of bearing children without a committed family bond. Economic hardship, rampant infidelity, legal entanglements and more are detailed with depressing clarity by the authors.

Depending on your faith perspective, of course, there are all kinds of arguments that can be made in relation to the cohabitation experience. It is biblically forbidden. It is historically ineffective. It pales in comparison to legitimate marriage as a satisfying or lasting relationship. But cohabitation has become an accepted way of life in America, despite its flaws and failings. What can be done?

The authors use the second half of the book to describe a variety of means that churches can implement to blunt the harsh effects of unmarried people living together. Drawing on their successful endeavors related to the Marriage Savers ministry, they offer a practical approach to counteracting cohabitation. Included among their detailed recommendations for churches are implementation of a premarital inventory; training and assignment of mentor couples; providing the skills to resolve conflict; establishing and supporting a church policy regarding cohabitation; and a process for educating couples about cohabitation and marriage.

Perhaps the most important step in this approach that is widely overlooked is the role of married mentors. While identifying and preparing married couples to be effective mentors is a challenging task, the impact of those mentors can be staggering.

This shouldn’t be news to us; coaching is critical in every aspect of development, from leadership training, the athletics to child development. Good coaches or mentors change people¹s lives! Why shouldn’t we expect that to be the case in marriage, as well? This book not only describes how to equip couples to be influential mentors, but provides the statistical back-up as to the difference such coaching makes in relationships.

The book concludes with a chapter about the Community Marriage Policy, the cornerstone of the Marriage Savers strategy enacted through churches. The brief explanation of the policy and its impact to date is compelling. In an age where marriage is under attack, churches are overwhelmed by the challenges related to marriage, and there is limited united and productive action undertaken across church lines, the Community Marriage Policy is something that every pastor should consider adopting.

This book doesn’t take long to read. But if you take the information and recommendations to heart, its impact will be long-lasting. GB

7 Responses to Book Review – “Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers”

  1. Mike McManus says:

    Dear Dr. Jagers,

    As the co-author of “Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, I wanted to thank you for passing along the review by George Barna of our book. I appreciate your letting others know that we are offering some fresh answers to the destructiveness of cohabitation. While our book is about cohabitation in the United States, it appears that the cohabitation rate is even higher in Great Britain and Europe. Therefore, the book may be helpful to the British. Our basic message can be stated briefly in two paragraphs:

    Many people live together in what they call “trial marriages.” But they are really getting into what might be called a “trial divorces,” because 8 out of 10 couples who live together either break up before a wedding, or afterwards in divorce Cohabitation is destroying marriages. In the United States, it is a double cancer. First, it has diverted tens of millions of people from ever marrying. In 1970, there were 21 million never-married Americans. By 2006, that figure tripled to 60 million! No wonder the marriage rate in America has plunged 50% since 1970. Second, cohabitation is a cancer at the center of marriage. Studies show that those who live together before marriage – are 50% more likely to divorce than those who remained separate before the wedding.

    Our book outlines a better way to test whether a couple’s relationship is strong enough to build a life long marriage. St. Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians wrote, “Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” Couples who cohabit are embracing evil. That’s what an 80% failure rate is. Therefore, we recommend a five step approach:

    1. Take a premarital inventory such as PREPARE or FOCCUS that ask the couples whether they agree or disagree with 150+ statements like these:

    — 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.
    — I would like to change some of the ways we solve problems

    The inventory gives the couple an objective overview of their strengths as a couple, and areas for future growth. It also provides a bridge for older couples to mentor those preparing for marriage.

    2. Meet with a trained Mentor Couple in a healthy marriage, to discuss the issues surfaced by the inventory. We at Marriage Savers have trained 4,000 Mentor Couples to review each of the 156-189 inventory items over a period of 3-4 months. Mentors meet with mentorees every other week for 2-3 hours to discuss the unique issues that each couple has revealed about themselves. Every church has couples in healthy marriages who could be trained to be Mentor Couples.

    3. Learn skills of communication and conflict resolution. Mentor Couples are trained to administer a series of exercises that are designed to help couples learn to resolve conflict in a way that is mutually respectful. The major reasons that couples divorce is that they have not learned the skills of conflict resolution, that can be taught in a few hours.

    4. Move apart. Couples who are cohabiting have a diminished quality of their relationship that can be improved by moving aparat and going through the thorough marriage preparation process outlined above. Many arguments will cease. This approach will increase the couple’s long-term odds for success.

    5. Stop having sex until the wedding. This is the hardest step to take, but studies show that the sexually active are much more likely to divorce than those who are chaste. The sexually active are two-thirds more likely to divorce. Remaining chaste until the wedding increases their chances for success. My wife and I have mentored 58 couples, only 9 of whom were chaste when they came to us. But of the 49 who were sexually active, 43 became chaste. While 9 couples decided not to marry, we do not know of any we have prepared who divorced since 1992.

    More evidence. Of 288 couples our church prepared for marriage using this 5-step plan, 55 decided NOT to marry. that is a big 19% who did not marry. But of the 233 who did marry there were only 7 divorces or separations over a decade. That is virtual marriage insurance.

    Fro details on both the problems of cohabitation and our proven answers, read “Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers.”

    Mike McManus, President
    Marriage Savers

  2. leejagers says:

    Thanks for weighing in with your statistics and remedies that have a record of effectiveness. I have made access to the PREPARE inventory easy by clicking on my blog sight and then clicking on the emboldened “Couple Checkup”. It can be taken on-line like my wife and I did. It’s cheap and it’s convenient. As you mentioned, it’s easy to see what the right thing is to do, but it’s difficult to influence people to take that path on the higher road. Praise God that you are doing this more effectively than most. Blessings – Lee

  3. Lee Jagers says:

    I just ran across this report of a new study and want to add it to the pieces of the debate here.
    Living Together: No Big Deal?
    USA Today
    Sharon Jayson
    June 9, 2008

    An analysis of cohabitation, marriage and divorce data from 13 countries, including the USA, shows that living together has become so mainstream that growing numbers of Americans view it as an alternative to marriage. The National Marriage Project study of a sampling of Western European and Scandinavian nations, Australia, Canada and New Zealand found that cohabitation elsewhere is far more common and indeed viewed as an option to matrimony. The study found that anywhere from 15% to 30% of all couples identified themselves as living together, compared with about 10% right now in the USA. “We’re still the most marrying of all these countries, but the data are clearly headed in the one common direction. It’s headed in the direction of cohabitation as an alternative,” says David Popenoe, the report’s author and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, which studies marriage and child well-being.

    Because the most recent data analyzed from some countries is two years old or more, and because increasing numbers of celebrities are living together, Popenoe says his projections take into account slight increases over time. “Today, celebrities from Hollywood and elsewhere are looked up to,” he says. “They have become role models. They are far more influential today than ever in the past.” A previous study by the same group showed that since 1970, the number of Americans living together has increased from about 500,000 opposite-sex couples to more than 5 million. Using databases of Census-like information in the countries studied, the new analysis found that the marriage rate is down in all countries except Norway and Sweden, which have had traditionally low marriage rates. In the USA from 1995 to 2005, the marriage rate declined almost 20%.

    The report will be posted online Wednesday. Joselin Linder, 33, of Brooklyn is living with a boyfriend now and has lived with two others in the past. Now she’s co-author of the new book The Good Girl’s Guide to Living in Sin and says many women her age and younger view living with a romantic partner as a convenience. She says it’s not about avoiding marriage. “It’s what’s happening in the world of dating, and it’s not necessarily a path anywhere,” she says. The new report cites Census data showing that about 40% of all opposite-sex, unmarried couples live with their own child under 18. “We often think of cohabitation as a phenomenon of young adulthood before people start having kids, but … as marriage is being delayed to later and later ages, more children are born before marriage, and many of the couples are cohabiting before the birth,” says R. Kelly Raley, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Austin, who did not participate in the study. Raley isn’t convinced that cohabitation is being viewed as a marriage alternative, citing a 2001 study of her own. The evidence, she found, didn’t suggest people cohabit to start a family, which she says is what would be expected if cohabitation were considered a marriage alternative. The National Marriage Project report also cites findings from earlier studies showing that children of cohabiting couples are more likely to experience emotional problems, alcoholism and drug abuse. But Raley says the research leaves unanswered questions. “Many cohabiting couples use cohabitation to weather economic uncertainty or uncertainty about a relationship,” she says. “We can’t tell if the negative outcome for the child is due to the cohabitation or to the economic uncertainty or maybe the relationship uncertainty. That’s a limitation of the data.”

  4. leejagers says:

    iMAPP Marriage News provided this survey recently which I think is relevant to the discussion of cohabitation because it’s a nationwide survey:

    National Marriage Project Releases “Cohabitation, Marriage and Child Wellbeing: A Cross-National Perspective”
    National Marriage Project (–rApmI2cg64k-4Trkj8iKhmkHd9iCPlQGvQ0Wthd63OhTdHBFzGNsy75kORG0ohQsajc=)
    David Popenoe

    EXCERPT: The Key Findings from Cross-National Investigation

    1. Cohabitation has become a permanent part of the life course

    Cohabitation appears to have become imbedded as a normal part of the life course in modern nations; that is, the great majority of people in these nations are likely to cohabit outside of marriage sometime during their lives. There is no sign in any nation that cohabitation is in decline; quite the opposite, it is increasing everywhere. Most young people are planning to cohabit, at least as an alternative to dating and as a “trial marriage,” but increasingly as an alternative to marriage. One recent study in the United States found the same trend that is evident in Europe: “For growing numbers of couples, cohabitation is now becoming an alternative to marriage or being single…Many couples seem to be living together longer without marrying or ending their relationship.”[30]

    2. Cohabitation has led to fewer marriages

    There are many reasons for the decline of marriage, but the rise of cohabitation is certainly one of them. There are three main components to the falling marriage rates of recent years: later age at first marriage (made possible, in part, by the acceptability of cohabitation); more frequent non-marital cohabitation; and fewer marriages following on from cohabitation. Once established in the culture, cohabitation seems gradually to be corroding the desire of couples to move to marriage. [31]

    3. Cohabitation is not the same as marriage; most importantly, cohabiting couples break up at a much higher rate than married couples

    The primary way in which cohabitation differs in its social character from marriage is the lower level of interpersonal commitment that is involved, a phenomenon which surely is related to its more informal nature and to the absence of a formal promise or solemn pledge to stay together. Cohabiting partners tend to have a weaker sense of couple identity, less willingness to sacrifice for the other, and a lower desire to see the relationship go long term. This holds true even in nations where cohabitation has become common and institutionalized. One study using data from Norway and Sweden, for example, found that compared to married couples, cohabitors overall “are less serious, less satisfied, and more often consider to split up from their current relationships.”[32] One of the most telling measures of low commitment is the break-up rate of couples. We know from many studies that cohabiting couples break up at a far higher rate than married couples, by one estimate in the United States, the rate is five times higher.[33] Of course, much of this is due to the fact that many cohabiting relationships are relatively transient and not expected to be long term. But even when children are involved, a situation where one would expect to find a higher level of commitment and permanence, the break-up rate of cohabiting couples is far higher than for married couples. A study in Norway found that children of cohabiting couples were almost two and one half times more likely to face parental breakup compared to children of married couples, and that over several decades this discrepancy has not changed.[34] A massive British study reports that “nearly one in two cohabiting parents split up before their child’s fifth birthday compared to one in twelve married parents,” and “three quarters of family breakdown affecting young children now involves unmarried parents.”[35]

    4. The relationship between cohabitation and the divorce rate is both negative and positive

    Many studies in the US have shown that couples who cohabit before marriage have a higher risk of divorce when they do marry.[36] Several reasons have been put forth to account for this. One is that it is mostly due to selectivity; that is, those people who are willing to cohabit are the same people who already are more divorce prone. They may be less committed to traditional family values, less inclined toward or more tentative regarding long-term relationships, and may have personality traits that make them less suitable as marriage partners. A second reason involves the actual experience of cohabitation, that is, attitudes and behaviors developed through cohabitation may be inimical to long-term marriage. For example, cohabitation may generate the attitude that relationships are mainly for the purpose of testing compatibility, an attitude poisonous to long-term marriages. A third reason is that cohabiting couples, compared to dating couples, often find it harder to break up due to the greater complications of household and financial as well as emotional matters. They therefore may drift through inertia into inappropriate marriages, only to break up farther down the line.[37]It seems to be the case, however, that cohabitation has both a negative and a positive effect on divorce. In the United States and a few other modern nations, with increased cohabitation divorce rates have been leveling off or dropping. Cohabitation clearly has contributed to rapid drops in the marriage rate, and it may be that marriage is, therefore, gradually becoming more selective of people who really desire it. In other words, many ill-matched couples who in earlier years would have gone on to marriage and later divorce, because cohabitation was not possible for them, today cohabit instead. If and when they break up, which they do in large numbers, their break up is, of course, not reflected in the divorce rate. There is also new evidence that, in several nations where cohabitation is much more common than in the US, the effect of premarital cohabitation on later marital breakup has diminished or even reversed.[38] For one thing, when cohabitation becomes almost universally practiced, as it is in these nations, any outcome comparisons with those few who don’t cohabit becomes rather meaningless. Whatever the effects, the relationship between cohabitation and divorce points up a very serious problem in measuring family breakup in modern nations: Using the divorce rate alone is no longer very useful because it doesn’t include the breakup of the huge number of cohabiting couples. While no official statistics are kept on the breakup rate of cohabiting couples, it is not hard to realize that, especially in the high-cohabitation nations, relying solely on the divorce rate seriously underestimates the amount of family breakup that prevails. In fact, the highest family breakup rates in the world today may be found in Scandinavia, which not only have relatively high divorce rates but also the highest percentage of cohabiting couples.

    5. The relationship between cohabitation and the birth rate is both negative and positive

    The relationship between the rise of cohabitation and fertility levels in modern nations is rather ambivalent. In a given society cohabiting couples tend to have fewer children than married couples.[39] Also, the delay of marriage made possible through cohabitation is strongly associated with the low birth rates in the European nations; the later the age at first childbirth, the lower the fertility level.[40] Thus cohabitation could be said to be an important factor in the long-run decline of fertility in modern times. In an important reversal of this negative effect of cohabitation on fertility, however, the southern European nations (Italy and Spain) with the lowest levels of cohabitation also today have the lowest birth rates. It seems to be the case that, in modern nations where so many children are born out of wedlock, if cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births are culturally stigmatized–as they still are in the southern European nations–women will simply not have as many children as they otherwise might.[41] Put differently, the higher fertility rates found in places like France and Sweden are strongly related to the far higher percentage of unwed births in those nations, most of which take place within cohabiting unions. It is important to note that Italy has no more childless women than France and Sweden; the lower fertility there results from the fact that more Italian mothers have just one child.

    6. Cohabitation has been a major contributor to the rise of unwed births and lone-parent families

    Perhaps the most universal family trend in modern nations today is the shift of child rearing from married parents to single or lone parents, most often mothers. Lone-parent families in these nations have skyrocketed in recent years, along with non-marital cohabitation. The percentage of children living in lone-parent families in Spain jumped almost 80 percent in the period from 1991 to 2001, while in France it climbed 49 percent. The percentage of all children living with a single parent in Germany, New Zealand and Norway now equals or surpasses the 26 percent currently found in the United States, the nation long known as the lone-parent leader.[42] In several nations the chances are now better than 50-50 that a child will spend some time living with just one parent before reaching adulthood.[43] Lone parenthood stems both from unwed births and from parental breakup after birth. The increase in cohabitation is obviously related strongly to higher percentages of out-of-wedlock births. But the most important reason for lone parenthood in these nations today is the breakup of parents after birth.[44] And, as noted above, the breakup rate for cohabiting couples who have children is more than twice what it is for married couples with children.

    7. Through contributing to unwed births and lone-parent families, cohabitation has negative effects on child wellbeing

    There is abundant empirical research in the United States that demonstrates the strongly negative effects of cohabitation and lone-parent families on child wellbeing.[45] Although research on this topic is not nearly so well-developed in Europe and the Anglo nations as it is here, the research that does exist comes up with essentially the same findings. One classic Swedish study published by the British medical journal, Lancet, in 2003 found that Swedish children growing up in non-intact families compared to those in intact families, even after controlling for socioeconomic status and psychological health of the parents, were twice as likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, diseases, suicide attempts, alcoholism, and drug abuse.[46] A Norwegian study that examined the relationship between cohabitation and child wellbeing concluded that “for children, being born into a consensual union has several implications: the risk of dissolution is persistently high…; they are likely to be born into a precarious socioeconomic situation; they are more likely to live with their mother than their father after dissolution, their family experience evades public surveillance, and they are not likely to have siblings with whom they have common parents.”[47]The State of the Nation Report in Britain, published in 2006, found that 70 percent of young offenders come from lone-parent families, and children who had grown up in lone-parent or broken families were between three to six times more likely to have suffered abuse. “Childhood in a broken family,” states the report, “is more likely than average to be unhappy [and] to involve violence, abuse, debt, drug/alcohol problems, as well as high levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and mental illness.” The report concludes that “the impact of family breakdown on children is generally negative. In many cases it has insidious effects which impact their own future capability to maintain healthy relationships.”[48]A recent article that reviewed long-term studies from Sweden, Israel, and the U.K. as well as the United States, and published in a Scandinavian pediatric journal, concluded that children who lived with both a mother and a father had significantly fewer behavioral and psychological problems than those who lived with their mother only.[49] In speaking to a newspaper reporter, one of the authors said: “It may seem obvious that what’s worked for centuries is good for individuals and society, but that’s what we found.”[50]

  5. LJagers says:

    From “Smartmarriages” Aug 27, 2009

    – Force of Cohabit: Making or Breaking a Marriage?

    By Ellen McCarthy
    Washington Post
    August 16, 2009


    It seems, to many, like the sensible thing to do: Move in with your
    boyfriend or girlfriend, spend more time together, save money by splitting
    the rent and see if you can share a bathroom every morning without wanting
    to kill each other.

    But if you were Scott Stanley’s kid, he’d beg you not to do it.

    Stanley, a University of Denver psychologist, has spent the past 15 years
    trying to figure out why premarital cohabitation is associated with lower
    levels of satisfaction in marriage and a greater potential for divorce.

    At a conference last month, Stanley and his colleagues presented the latest
    findings of a five-year study being sponsored by the National Institute of
    Child Health and Human Development. He estimates that between 60 and 70
    percent of couples today will live together before marriage, and that for
    two-thirds of them, cohabitation is something that they slid into or “just
    sort of happened.”

    And a study Stanley co-authored in February found that of the 1,050 married
    people surveyed, almost 19 percent of those who lived together before
    getting engaged had at some point suggested divorce, compared with 10
    percent for those who waited until marriage to live together.

    Those findings mimic the reports from the mid-1990s that first peaked
    Stanley’s interest, showing that men who cohabitated before marriage were,
    on average, less dedicated to their relationships than those who didn’t.

    “It was one of those kind of findings that I wouldn’t have suspected,”
    Stanley, 53, recalls. But he immediately had a theory: “The basic idea was,
    ‘Okay, there’s a group of males there that married someone they wouldn’t
    have married if they hadn’t moved in with them.’ ”

    The problem is one of inertia, he says. Living together, mingling finances
    and completely intertwining your lives makes it harder to break up than if
    you’d stayed at separate addresses. “Some people get trapped by that and
    they end up hanging around,” he explains. Even if a couple doesn’t
    eventually marry, they might prolong the relationship and “miss other
    opportunities with a person who’s a better fit.”

    But not all cohabitations are created equal. Stanley’s studies have shown
    there’s almost no difference in marital satisfaction between couples who
    moved in together after they got engaged and those who did it after their
    wedding day. He attributes this to varying levels of deliberateness; engaged
    and married couples have committed to a future together, while some couples
    who cohabit before engagement are ambiguous about where their relationship
    is headed.

    It’s often the case that one partner sees cohabitation as a step toward
    marriage, Stanley says, while the other is thinking more loosely about the
    arrangement. Stanley says couples can slide into living together and then
    sometimes slide further into having kids and getting married without openly
    discussing the transitions and decision-making about them.

    “Commitment is fundamentally about making a decision . . . making the choice
    to give up other choices,” says Stanley, who also writes a blog called
    Sliding vs Deciding. “It can’t be a commitment if it’s not a decision. But
    people, on average, don’t seem to be talking about what [cohabitation] means
    for them as a couple. They just find themselves doing it.”

    It’s not that the act of cohabitation weakens relationships, however.
    Couples who live together after making thoughtful decisions to commit their
    lives to one another have no higher risk for marital dissatisfaction, his
    research has found. It’s less stable couples who decide to move in together
    that might see trouble down the road — especially if a child becomes
    involved or they marry because of societal pressure. “Cohabitation may not
    be making some relationships more risky,” Stanley says. “What it may be
    doing is making some risky relationships more likely to continue.”

    Of course, many couples who cohabitate before getting engaged or tying the
    knot end up in very happy, successful marriages, the psychologist concedes.

    But for Stanley, the bottom line is that people should “not assume that
    living together is such a harmless, easy thing to do that won’t affect your
    life. . . . At the very least you should talk about it, clarify things with
    your partner.”

  6. […] book review – “living together: myths, risks & answers” […]

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