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Mentoring Program May Save a Bad Marriage Before it Begins

by Maggie Gallagher

March 25, 2008

In America today, cohabitation has become a social norm. Why? In large part because young people are so fearful of divorce. Living together has become an accepted solution to the problem of figuring out whether a relationship can last for life.

Mike and Harriet McManus have a vision: America's churches can offer better answers to a generation of young people torn between the relentless human need to trust in love and the reality that 50 years of high divorce rates make it hard to hope.

But religious communities, rather than offering hope, have more or less accommodated to the young people's anxieties by passively tolerating cohabitation, say Mike and Harriet in their new book, "Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers." The McManuses are clear about one thing: We owe the next generation more than moral lectures or confused silence, and we owe them practical help in building successful marriages.

This is particularly true, Mike and Harriet point out, for Christians, who are called not only to "flee fornication" but to model for the world and for each other the unbreakable love between Christ and his church. But when Christian marriages fail at about the same rate as worldly marriages, Christian communities are failing in their main mission to model God's love.

The practical consequences of marital failure is that churches lose a lot of the next generation as well. Forty percent of married parents attend church weekly compared to only about a quarter of parents who are not married. Divorce and unmarried childbearing not only hurt children and adults, they interrupt the intergenerational transmission of faith.

Cohabitation certainly does not reduce the risk of divorce and probably increases it. "You can't practice permanence," as Mike told one young man. People who cohabit often slide into less-than-ideal marriages because breaking up is harder to do if you are already sharing bed and board. If cohabitation doesn't work as a way of preventing divorce and bad marriages, what does?

The McManuses are not academics -- the greatest strength of their testimony lies in 20 years of experience in providing extremely practical help to engaged couples, first in their Bethesda, Md., congregation, and eventually in many other communities through the marriage mentoring and community marriage policies they detail on MarriageSavers.org.

What the McManuses do is something quite different from most ministers, who either exclude cohabiting couples or ignore their cohabitation. The McManus' church offers all couples -- including cohabiting ones -- a free, extensive marriage-preparation course given by experienced, married mentor couples who teach not only the religious significance of marriage but the practical skills for conflict resolution, even though their church will not marry cohabiting couples. The message sent? We care about your relationship, and we will help you build a better one.

One of the things that the mentor couples do is to review the results from a "premarital inventory" -- a questionnaire that identifies potential strengths and weaknesses when participants rate statements such as "At times I am concerned about the silent treatment I get from my future spouse," and "I am concerned that my future spouse spends money foolishly." Couples who identify the problems in their relationship can decide to learn how to handle disagreements in better ways, or (sometimes) decide not to marry at all.

Of 229 couples that the McManuses mentored who married, just seven have divorced or separated. Almost one-fifth of the couples they mentored premaritally decided on their own to break the engagements, which Mike and Harriet consider equally important.

Marriage is not just one of many issues for pastors and congregations; it is a test of our capacity to reflect God's love in the world. Rebuilding the next generation's faith in love, the McManuses say, needs to become a more urgent priority.