What Have We Learned From Living Together?
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What Have We Learned From Living Together?

Couples living together -- there are 11 million of them -- are now firmly part of American society. New research is shedding fascinating light on the risks -- and rewards -- of sharing a roof before exchanging vows.

Live in Love

Leah*, a bank sales manager in Los Angeles, was 20 and deeply in love, but she and her 22-year-old boyfriend never even considered living together. "Our parents couldn't have taken it," she says. "So we got married." Today, 49, divorced and the mother of two children, 15 and 13, Leah is in love with a man she's been dating for two years, and choosing a different road. "Eventually we'll marry," she says. "He's ready now. But I want to live together first. Something a little less permanent than marriage will give my kids a chance to adjust to my being with a man for the first time in 10 years. And given my divorce, I'm a little afraid. Living together doesn't feel like as big a commitment."

What's most remarkable about Leah's story is the fact that it's not remarkable. Just a few decades ago, men and women who shared a home without being married were considered to be "living in sin," no matter how old they were. Today, some 10 million heterosexual American adults live with their boy- or girlfriends -- seven times as many as in 1970. Although cohabitation hasn't replaced marriage -- there are about 55 million married couples -- it has gone from scandalous to rare to utterly commonplace.

These days, the average trial cohabitation lasts about two years; after five years, 55 percent of couples marry. And at least half of all new marriages today begin as cohabitations. (By age 30, three-quarters of women have been married and about half have lived with their mates first.) Studies have shown, however, that couples who tie the knot after living together are more prone to divorce. While experts are divided on what cohabiting means for a couple's happiness -- and the future of marriage itself -- they all agree on one thing: The trend isn't going away.

*Name has been changed.

The New Cynics

Who lives together? A better question would be "Who doesn't?" according to Pamela J. Smock, PhD, associate director at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Unmarried couples who live together are of every race, ethnicity, and income bracket. On average, they tend to be 12 years younger than their married counterparts. Although they're more concentrated in urban areas, they live all over the country, and nearly half of such households include children. (Most of the time, these children are the product of one partner's earlier relationship or marriage, but not always: While only 11 percent of overall births are to cohabiting parents, 40 percent of kids born "officially" to single mothers actually are born to couples living together.)

More than a third of cohabitants are relatively young (between 25 and 34). But surprisingly, older couples are also embracing the trend: 23 percent of cohabitants are over 45, and 4 percent are senior citizens. For them, it's a way to enjoy companionship and split expenses while preserving individual pension, social security, and Medicare benefits.

Finally, living together is extremely common among the economically disadvantaged -- according to some estimates, nearly one-third of cohabiting couples with children live below the poverty line.

There's no one reason why so many men and women choose to share a roof rather than exchange vows. "Cohabitation means different things to different couples, and sometimes different things to the same couple at different times," says Larry Bumpass, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and codirector of the National Survey of Families and Households. Separate surveys, one of high school seniors across the country and the other of adults 20 to 29 by a Gallup poll, found that some 60 percent agreed that it was a good idea for couples to live together "to find out whether they really get along," in order to avoid later divorce.

Financial and custody arrangements make it appealing to stay technically single in the event of a past or future divorce. "All of my boyfriend's money goes to support four children from his previous marriage," says Deborah, 40, of Allen Park, Michigan, who has a 14-year-old son and has been living with her partner for three years. "If we got married, I'm afraid that's where my money would go, too."

The desire to take a trial run to avoid a mistake is also strong among those whose own parents split up. "It happened when I was 6. It was very bitter, and my mother never got over it," says Xantipa Reed, 38, of Los Angeles, a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers.

While living together often ends at the altar, a small minority of people see it as a permanent arrangement and a conscious, political choice. (Only 10 percent of all cohabitations last more than five years.) "I hear some people say that living together feels more comfortable than being married," says Dorian Solot, executive director of the Boston-based Alternatives to Marriage Project and coauthor of Unmarried to Each Other (Marlowe & Company, 2002). "They feel it's the only way they can escape the traditional roles of 'husband' or 'wife.'"

The Divorce Dilemma

Some marriage advocates -- not to mention clergy of various denominations -- see the dramatic increase in cohabitation as a disaster. David Popenoe, PhD, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, PhD, of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, suggest that living together not only results in an inferior relationship, but can help doom a later marriage. They point to a 1992 study of 3,300 couples, which found that those who married after living together were 46 percent more likely to divorce.

Studies published in the Journal of Family Issues in 1995 and in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1996 found that couples living together are less satisfied with their relationship and less likely to be monogamous than those who are married. And a 1997 Pennsylvania State University study found that cohabiting between the ages of 18 and 23 made young men and women more accepting of divorce -- and less enthusiastic about getting married and having children.

Other researchers caution against a simplistic interpretation of these findings. "Cohabitation is associated with higher rates of divorce, but there's no proof that these marriages would have worked if the same couples hadn't lived together first," says Dr. Bumpass. Instead, as he and Dr. Smock point out, a number of factors come into play:

  • Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to be socially liberal and accepting of divorce, while those who don't may be more religious and inclined to stay together no matter what.
  • Some couples who move in together aren't ready to commit to marriage because their relationship is already troubled. (Interestingly, another study done at Penn State in 1999 found that couples who moved in together after they'd made definite plans to marry went on to have marriages every bit as solid and satisfying as those who hadn't lived together until after the wedding.)

Cohabitation may make young people less inclined towards marriage, as the 1997 study found, but these findings have yet to be replicated. And the fact that so many different types of people live together, from the less-affluent to the upscale, makes it hard to use divorce data to draw conclusions that apply to all. "One of the most powerful observations you can make about living together and divorce is that if they were associated in the way some studies suggest they are, the divorce rate would have risen over the last 20 years as cohabitation became more common," says Dr. Bumpass. "It hasn't." (The divorce rate has hovered at around 50 percent since 1980.)

Risks of Sharing a Roof

It's been 35 years since a Barnard College sophomore who openly admitted that she was living with her boyfriend was threatened with expulsion; her protest and fight to stay in school made the front page of The New York Times. But astonishingly, seven states -- Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia -- still have century-old laws against "lewd and lascivious" cohabitation on their books. Recently, the North Dakota State Senate voted to uphold its law, which classifies cohabitation as a sex crime, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. (Although never enforced, "it stands as a reminder that there is right, and there is wrong," one state senator said.)

Cohabitants also lack many of the legal privileges that husbands and wives take for granted. "If your lover becomes ill, you'll have no power to make decisions over his medical treatment or money management unless you've made prior and specific legal arrangements," says Frederick Hertz, an Oakland, California, attorney and coauthor of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples (Nolo, 2001). "If your partner dies, you have no right to his social security or pension. The amount you can inherit tax free will be much less than if you were married, and unless there's a will, assets may go to the nearest blood relatives, not you. If you break up, you won't automatically get alimony, and if you've been living with his biological child, you may have no rights to continue seeing that child."

Finally, while employers almost always provide medical insurance to spouses, they much more rarely do so for live-ins. (Hertz notes that while tax and benefit issues are out of an unmarried couple's control, they can and should protect themselves in other ways -- drafting wills, delegating power of attorney to each other in case either becomes critically ill, and drawing up agreements on what will happen if they separate.)

The fact that cohabitation isn't a clearly defined commitment, like marriage, can lead to heartbreak when couples have differing expectations about what comes next. Typically, 20 to 25 percent of the time, one cohabiting partner -- often the woman -- expects the relationship to lead to marriage, while the other doesn't, says Dr. Smock. And there's little question that the most troubled and unhappy live-in arrangements are those that continue while one or both partners remain unclear and insecure about the future.

One California woman, who asked not to have her name used, remembers living with her boyfriend from age 21 to 28 as "a good idea that went on way, way too long," she says. "When we moved in, we never talked about where we were going. We lived like roommates who slept together -- separate finances, friends, lifestyles. In retrospect, I can see that we let a lot of problems slide because there was always the sense of having an 'out' if things got too bad. By the time I got serious, the habit of separateness had become impossible to shake, and we had different ideas about the future. I wanted to settle down. He was still searching. We started planning a wedding, but two weeks before it was scheduled, he told me he'd fallen in love with someone else."

As generations who see nothing wrong with cohabitation become America's majority, and as the children of cohabiting parents grow up, the practice is likely to become even more firmly entrenched in society. And as of the year 2000, some 3,574 private companies, colleges, universities, and state and local governments were either offering, or about to offer, "domestic partner" benefits, such as health insurance and family leave. With those numbers expected to grow, cohabitation may become an established arrangement even more similar to marriage.

At the same time, there's no evidence that living together is about to replace marriage, or that it ever will. Even those enthusiastic about their unmarried years together acknowledge that making their union legal both deepened and changed it for the better. "Standing up in public and taking vows was a serious thing," says Barbara Colombo, 37, of Nederland, Colorado. "It gave our relationship an officialness that makes me feel even more committed. I can't just take off -- and I like that."

Marriage "gave us the commitment to a shared future," adds Xantipa Reed, who married her boyfriend after three years of living together. "We could say 'Let's buy a house, let's save for our retirement, let's have children.' It wasn't him or me anymore. It was us."