Decades of high divorce rates have given rise to a generation of young adults who fear marriage. In response, the statistics show that many now live together to test their compatibility. Since 1960, America has witnessed a 12-fold increase in cohabitation from 430,000 couples to 5.4 million couples. At the same time, there's been a 50 percent plunge in the marriage rate, along with rising numbers of out-of-wedlock births.

Many of those 5.4 million couples, along with their friends and neighbors, still believe the enduing myth that cohabitation works as a sort of trial marriage. In reality, cohabitation often becomes a trial divorce. The only question is whether couples will split before or after their wedding. About 45 percent of cohabitating couples undergo what we call a "premarital divorce," which can be as painful as the real thing. The half who make it to the altar are about 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who lived apart prior to marrying. In the end, as few as 15 of every 100 couples who cohabit go on to create a lasting marriage.

By contrast, a woman who lives with a man is three times more likely to be physically abused than a married woman. If a cohabitating couple breaks up, the woman is then 18 times more likely to be harmed than a married woman. In addition, infidelity for cohabiting men is four times that of married men; for cohabiting women, infidelity is eight times more likely.

Paul wrote, "Test everything. Hold onto the good. Avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thess. 5:21-22). About two-thirds of married couples now cohabit before marriage, and every study on the arrangement shows that cohabitation is detrimental. Churches, which still perform the vast majority of marriages in the U.S., are too often mute on the subject, marrying couples without comment on their living arrangements. The good news is that we can do better.

Congregations can train mentor couples to inform cohabiting couples about the risks they are inviting into their relationship. These mentors need to be able to administer premarital inventories to help couples identify their relationship's strengths and opportunities for growth. Mentors can teach couples how to resolve conflict in a mutually respectful way. They can also earn couples' trust and encourage them to separate to reduce their challenges and increase their relationships' chances of success.

About 800,000 couples take a premarital inventory every year, a tenth of whom decide not to marry. They often have the same scores as those who marry and divorce; thus, they've avoided a bad marriage before it began.

My wife, Harriet, and I run a ministry called Marriage Savers that trains mentor couples in principles of healthy marriages and equips them to administer inventories. We encourage mentors to talk through all 150 statements on these inventories, which generally requires six sessions of more than two hours each. We envision the marital wisdom of one generation being passed on to the next.

Our results speak for themselves. Of the 288 couples that our mentors have prepared for marriage during the past decade, 55 decided not to marry. Typically, only 1 percent of couples split during premarital counseling, so a 19 percent breakup rate is huge — and encouraging. Because of the 233 couples who did go on to marry, only seven have divorced or separated. Suffice it to say that a 97 percent success rate significantly beats the national average.

According to David Popenhoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, the underlying reason for the rise in cohabitation is a lack of male commitment to marriage. They write, "Men experience few social pressures to marry, gain many of the benefits of marriage by cohabiting with a romantic partner, and are ever more reluctant to commit to marriage in their early adult years."

Indeed, men and women enter into cohabitation for radically different reasons. Men cohabit for easy availability of sex and shared living expenses. Women do so as a step toward marriage. What few understand is that cohabitation increases the odds that they will never marry—or that they will divorce, if they do marry. You can't practice permanence.

As we note in our new book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, we now know unequivocally that cohabitation doesn't work. Churches — the gatekeepers of weddings — can delay no longer. They must educate, equip, and elevate marriage to the position of honor it deserves. Organized religion has unwittingly contributed to America's high divorce and rising cohabitation rates. But it can become the architect of a new culture that honors marriage once again.

Mike McManus is a syndicated columnist and the president of Marriage Savers.

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