What Have We Learned From Living Together?
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.'"