Categories: News

Why couples are choosing cohabitation over marriage

Naomi Elliott for Vox

First comes love, then comes … moving in together.

After about two years of dating, Matt Garville, 38, made some space in his closet for his girlfriend, Aloria Rucker, 31. At the time, Rucker was living with a roommate in Brooklyn but spending most nights with Garville at his roommate-less apartment in Hoboken, he says, so the move made sense. The couple agreed they were in the relationship for the long haul, with marriage on the horizon. But first, a necessary step: cohabitation.

“It’s kind of like an interview process,” Garville says. “You’re both kind of interviewing each other. You learn their quirks and how clean they are and how they decorate a room. It’s the final compatibility test. If you pass the roommate test, it’s all systems go from there.”

They aced the roommate test. A year into living together, Garville proposed. Although he never had any hesitations about marrying Rucker, he still wanted to live together first. It felt weird not to. Plenty of Garville’s friends set a precedent. He was just following along in the contemporary relationship timeline: You meet, you date, you’re exclusive, you move in together, you get engaged, then you marry.

If nursery rhymes are clues to how couples live their lives, “first comes love, then comes marriage” is sorely outdated. Once considered taboo due to the mere suggestion that a couple was having premarital sex, cohabitation before marriage is now the norm. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis, 59 percent of adults aged 18 to 44 have lived with a romantic partner, compared to 50 percent of that demographic who have ever been married. A 2021 analysis of National Survey of Family Growth data found that among those aged 18 to 44 who married between 2015 and 2019, 76 percent of couples cohabitated first; that was true of just 11 percent of marriages between 1965 and 1974. On average, partners live together for more than two and a half years before getting married, per a 2019 analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households and National Survey of Family Growth.

Living together without the legal protections — or long-term commitment — of marriage can make cohabitation difficult for those who aren’t intentional about their relationships. Married couples report higher trust and satisfaction in their relationships compared to unmarried cohabitating partners, according to the Pew analysis. A 2023 report found that married couples who had moved in together before getting engaged or married were 48 percent more likely to divorce than those who cohabited only after proposing or tying the knot. This doesn’t mean marriage is superior to cohabitation, but it could mean that couples who openly discuss their futures have less ambiguity about their relationships.

When couples don’t share how they feel about moving in — which is common, says Galena Rhoades, a research professor and director of the Family Research Center at the University of Denver — one party may eventually feel let down. If one partner sees moving in together as the lead-up to marriage and the other is looking for cheaper rent, someone is bound to be disappointed. Those who have made that prior commitment, whether by getting engaged or by committing their lives to one another before sharing a home, are more likely to stay together.

However, marriage isn’t a balm for a middling relationship. And plenty of people, especially women, people of color, and queer people, have historically not benefited from the institution. Wider acceptance of unmarried cohabitation allows couples who previously would have been considered “nontraditional” more flexibility to live their lives authentically.

Today’s couples may be no less committed than in decades past, but shifts in social mores have redefined the place of marriage in society — and set new standards for when a person feels “ready” to wed.

The rise of cohabitation

Early America was a nation of cohabitors. Prior to the late 1800s, most states recognized common-law marriage — a legal marriage between two people who lived together but who did not receive a marriage certificate or get married in a religious ceremony — says Arielle Kuperberg, a professor of sociology at UNC Greensboro and chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Because low-income Americans and people of color were largely having common-law marriages, Kuperberg continues, lawmakers, the courts, and the public at large considered the practice lower-class, and states began abolishing the unions. Most states no longer recognized common-law marriage by the mid-20th century.

The decline of common-law marriage led to a new type of living situation: cohabitation. In the early to mid-20th century, cohabiting couples fell into similar demographics as those who had sought common-law marriages, Kuperberg says: people of color and those with low education levels. Because the Supreme Court didn’t legalize marriage for interracial couples until 1967 — or same-sex couples until 2015 — multiracial and queer couples had no other choice but to cohabitate without marrying.

Amid the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, the New York Times shed light on cohabitation, reporting on a college-aged couple who were not married, but lived together. The incident initially sparked outrage, Kuperberg says, but in the years that followed, cohabitation became trendy, with celebrities jumping on board. Instead of being considered low-class or sinful, widespread acceptance of living with a romantic partner signaled an ideological change. “People had premarital sex before that,” Kuperberg says, “but then it became ‘You can have premarital sex and not be a fallen woman.’”

Social and economic advancements in the 1970s allowed women greater economic and bodily autonomy. Easier access to birth control and legalized abortion meant women could pursue college and careers with greater control over when to have children. With this newfound flexibility and income, marriage was less of a way to shore up resources for a woman and her children and more something to choose. “We had a group of women who felt very independent, felt they could make their own decisions, could control their fertility,” says Pamela Smock, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. “Having sex in the relationship is no longer bad.”

A less religious populace, unburdened by the constraints of purity and virginity before marriage, was one that was more eager to shack up. As more states legalized no-fault divorces, making it easier for couples to split, the divorce rate rose in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This may have caused people to be more cautious about tying the knot, leading them to live together instead, Kuperberg says.

Meanwhile, disillusionment with the institution of marriage has grown. In the US, laws and social mores have been historically hostile toward couples in queer, Black, and interracial pairings, which also may have turned people away from tying the knot. Worldwide, many women are opting out of marriage because of partner infidelity, increasing personal independence, and greater security living with parents and siblings. Perhaps in response to the high divorce rates of the 1980s and having divorced parents themselves, couples may be skeptical of “traditional” family structures, and a shrinking proportion of Americans consider it important for parents of children to be married. Thirty-nine percent of young women aged 18 to 34 say marriage is “old-fashioned and out-of-date,” according to a Survey Center on American Life report. And being unmarried no longer carries the same social stigma it did in past eras.

Cohabitation as a test run for marriage

Whether people are skeptical of marriage, hold it in high regard, or plan to bypass it entirely, many of today’s couples see cohabitation as another milestone on the way to long-term partnership. Wanting to avoid the headache and expense of divorce, some pairs now consider living together as “marriage lite” without any of the legal trappings.

However, choosing to cohabit doesn’t necessarily translate to a deeper commitment, Rhoades says. Plenty of people end up in marriages simply because they lived together first, she says. Some partners “slide” into living together — that is, move in together because it’s convenient (say, the other person’s lease is up) or to save money, not because they’ve considered a long-term future with their partner.

Anna Doran never viewed cohabitation as a trial run for marriage. If she was going to move in with someone, she was going to marry them. The 27-year-old grew up in a religious household where family and friends agreed: You don’t live together until you tie the knot. Doran was up front with her expectations early in relationships, which prompted deep conversations with her now fiancé, Andrew Russo, 31, including whether they wanted to spend their lives together and their respective home life habits and preferences.

Last summer, Russo asked for Doran’s parents’ permission to marry her and bought a ring, and the pair signed a lease on a shared apartment in Philadelphia. A month later, he proposed. Some of Doran’s friends were skeptical about their approach. “What if I found out he did this thing that annoyed me every day for the rest of my life?” she says of their thinking. “On the flip side, I had other friends that did wait until marriage and had always told me how special it made the actual feeling of getting married.”

Moving in, regardless of relationship status, increases the likelihood of a couple staying together by making it harder to break up, Rhoades says. “You’ve done things like commit to being together for the life of your lease,” she says. “You’re joining finances, you’re relying on one another for parenting, you’re sharing friends. You’re increasing things that may make it harder to end the relationship, while not necessarily increasing your sense of commitment.” A pair who moves in together early in their relationship must navigate getting to know one another with many of the same stressors as marriage.

For a cohabitating couple, breaking up can be just as devastating as divorce — they may have purchased furniture together, combined finances, or adopted a pet. Without the legal guardrails of divorce, divvying up property and assets can be messy. Unmarried parents face extra hurdles when dealing with the custody of their children post-split. For example, unmarried parents who break up are entitled to child support arrangements, but the child’s paternity must first be established via DNA or genetic testing. By contrast, a married man is assumed to be the legal father of his wife’s children.

Smock notes that when children are involved, many people choose to marry because it is easier for married parents to navigate institutions like schools and doctor’s offices. “Once people feel like it’s time for children,” she says, “that often spurs the marriage.”

Since women tend to take the greatest financial and professional hit when rearing children, they stand to lose the most in a breakup. “People don’t want to entangle themselves legally, but those legal things are also a protection in many ways,” Kuperberg says. “It’s often protection for the more financially vulnerable person in the relationship, which, more often than not, is women.”

Financial security as a precursor for marriage

Economic security may have once been a major reason to get married, but people today are often delaying it until they feel more stable in their finances, experts say. “Being a married couple,” Smock says, “people perceive … that you’ve reached a certain level of economic security.” But with so many obstacles preventing people from reaching their monetary goals, having the type of wedding they want is often unfeasible until later in adulthood. Many people attend college, often accumulating student loan debt in the process. If they’re able to get a job after graduation, it might not pay enough — wages haven’t grown much since 1960. Health care costs are higher, housing costs are higher, the cost of a wedding itself is higher. Young couples in particular hope to enter their marriages on a strong financial footing, Smock says, with security over their income, employment, and a down payment. As a result, only the most economically advantaged people may end up saying “I do.”

Waiting until they were married to live together allowed Sonny Grant-O’Sullivan and his wife, Lucinda, both 27, to splurge on vacations and the lavish wedding of their dreams. Despite dating for five years, Grant-O’Sullivan and Lucinda never considered sharing a home during that time. They both lived with their parents rent-free in London, a mere 20 minutes away from one another. “I suppose we got the best parts of living together: We saw each other all the time because we lived so close together,” he says. “But we avoided cons. We didn’t have to have arguments over who was doing the most cleaning or if someone snored in bed because we went our separate ways after our dates.”

The couple initially didn’t plan to move in immediately after their wedding last July, either. But after spending a few days together in a hotel after the ceremony, they determined their desire to live rent-free was trumped by the allure of living with a spouse. They began renting an apartment a few weeks later.

Grant-O’Sullivan admits the transition to married life would have been easier if they had lived together first, but he doesn’t regret their choices. They were able to save about £2,000 a month (around $2,500) for their wedding. “Having that kind of financial security, where we weren’t paying a lot of money for rent, meant that we were able to save for our wedding in about a year, and we had a really amazing wedding,” he says.

Cohabitation, too, allows partners the time to financially mature and save before marriage. Having another person to split the rent, utilities, groceries, and other expenses with may push people into committed romantic living situations they may not have seriously considered, Rhoades says. But if the option is between living with roommates you may not know or like or cohabit with your partner, the choice, for many, is clear.

All of this isn’t to say that every couple who lives together should get married or that marriage is in some way superior. Some people would prefer they remain legally and financially unentangled from their partners, especially after a breakup. Others may lack stable housing and live with a partner out of necessity. However, cohabitation comes with much of the emotional and logistical baggage of marriage without the clarity and legal protection of actually being married, which can cause even more strife if one partner does want to tie the knot and the other is hesitant. If a couple is ready to take on the shared responsibilities that come with cohabitation, it’s worth considering why they aren’t getting hitched instead, Rhoades says.

“That’s a good question,” Matt Garville says when reflecting on his own relationship timeline. “It just seems like you’re skipping a step.”

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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