Cohabitation seems as commonplace as pizza and skateboards, but researchers say most couples living together outside marriage split before they tie the knot.
An estimated 20 percent of couples who live together do marry each other. Some find a justice of the peace for a civil ceremony, and others seek the blessing of a church.
Perhaps the people are coming home to their faith after college, or have had a child and want to cling to their roots, said the Rev. Ken Nelson, associate pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Aiken.
It is rare for live-in lovers to walk down the aisle of some churches. In other congregations, it happens as often as not.
Regardless, pastors rarely turn them away.
The couple may have started out together for all the wrong reasons and are not living according to biblical standards, but they want to do something about that, said the Rev. Scott Ostendorf, pastor of Midland Valley First Church of the Nazarene. "We see those occasions to be redemptive."
If a couple say they want to marry, he listens to see if they have the right reasons, he said. "As a minister, you face the same thing when teens have gotten pregnant. Should they marry? Two wrongs don't make a right."
Despite mistakes, a relationship can turn around with counseling and prayer, but he insists that the couple not live together or have sexual relations during the engagement, he said.
If they have problems later on, he hopes they will come to the church for help.
Couples living together outside marriage make up about 5 percent of American households, according to a Census Bureau report. Live-ins have different issues than couples who have not lived together. While they have learned to make agreements, usually about finances and household chores, statistics show that marriages are more likely to break up if people have lived together than if they have not, said Dr. Richard Short, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church.
Experts estimate that former live-ins who marry each other are more likely to divorce. Estimates range from 60 percent to 85 percent. And the longer the couple live together before marriage, the more difficulties they have after the wedding, according to Rosanne Rosen, author of The Living Together Trap: Everything Women and Men Should Know. The book was published in 1993 by New Horizon Press of Far Hills, N.J.
Helping folks prepare for marriage is a significant, serious responsibility and one of the greatest privileges and joys in ministry, said Dr. Fred Andrea, pastor of First Baptist Church of Aiken. "It is a place where not many people are invited."
It is his experience that "a goodly proportion" of engaged couples today are essentially living together, he said. They may set up a common residence or maintain separate places yet spend most of the week together, Dr. Andrea said. "They functionally live as though in one."
He does not condemn them, but he makes it clear that cohabitating is not what God intends, nor does he approve of it himself, he said. "Cohabitating is a kind of trial commitment, and marriage is a total commitment. It is impossible to experience a trial of a total commitment."
The Rev. Bryan Cockrell, pastor of New Hope Church of God, also advises live-in couples to separate until they marry. But if they will not and they are suited for each other, he recommends they "go ahead right away with a marriage instead of putting it off."
The couple also needs premarital counseling, he said. "I would do my best to get them to get their life on a proper foundation. Homes are hard to keep together."
Couples marrying at Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans and other Augusta-area churches typically participate in premarital counseling. Wesley's is six weeks long.
Wesley requires that couples be affiliated with the congregation and develop a pastoral relationship if they want to marry there. Other Augusta-area churches have similar expectations.
Consequently, while Wesley has seen little cohabitating, it has happened, said the Rev. Glenn Ethridge, pastor. "People assume that they are going to try it out and it will help them. The reality is the opposite. Apart from the commitment of marriage and the spiritual commitment, relationships tend to falter more frequently."
The Rev. Nelson said he sees far less cohabitating in the congregation at St. John's in Aiken than he did among the 12,000 students at United Methodist-affiliated Duke University, where he served as assistant dean of chapel and director of religious life before coming to St. John's about a year ago.
Society in general is more accepting of cohabitating, he said. "I would suggest the church has to embody a different way of being in the world. Our understanding is different."
For more information about cohabitating, visit sociologist Roland H. Johnson III's Web address at www.asphaltphilosopher.com.
About 1 household per 100 in the United States reported cohabitation in 1977, according to a U.S. Bureau of Census report in May 1999. Twenty years later, the phenomenon had spread to roughly 1 in 20.
Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.