Many couples are opting for a replacement or "trial alternative" to marriage. As a result, marriage is becoming more like buying a car--people want a "test drive" before they sign the dotted line. The reasons are varied. Some feel it's not the right time for marriage while others think living together is the best insurance against divorce.

Once rare, cohabiting is becoming the norm. The number of marriages preceded by cohabitation rose from about 10 percent in 1965 to over 50 percent by 1994. And the percentage of women in their late 30s who said that they had cohabited at least once reached 48 percent in 1995.

Is this the best type of living arrangement? Contrary to the popular image, living together does less to mature young relationships and more to harm them. A study on premarital cohabitation conducted by researchers from Yale University, Columbia University, and the Institute for Resource Development at Westinghouse revealed that "the divorce rates of women who cohabit are nearly 80 percent higher than the rates of those who do not."

In a study released this month from the University of Michigan, researcher Pamela Smock discovered that 55 percent of cohabiting couples marry and 40 percent end the relationship within five years. She also found that "premarital cohabitation tends to be associated with lower marital quality and increased risk of divorce." She's right.

So why does cohabitation destroy so many relationships? Couples who live together are often less committed to the relationship over the long-term. And since marriage is the ultimate manifestation of commitment, married couples are more often willing to work out their differences before walking out of the relationship.

Across the spectrum, marriage has enormous value. Based on Family First's newly released report, Marriage Matters: A Social Analysis of the State of the Union, we found that marriage significantly increases the overall quality of life. The tangible benefits of marriage extend from general feelings of happiness to markedly better states of health. Married people enjoy a longer, healthier life than those who are not married. Children from married homes are less likely to engage in early, premarital sex and have less discipline problems.

Marriage has always been the overwhelming norm for domestic relationships throughout the history of humankind. Marriage is to human culture what the atom is to the physical world. It is the one irreducible building block essential for a healthy and productive society. Any attempt to replace it will fracture and hinder a couple's hope for a long and healthy marriage.

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