No Wedding? No Ring? No Problem
More and more Americans opt for cohabitation
Before 1970, it was called "living in sin" or "shacking up," and it was illegal in every state of the union. Why then, many social scientists are beginning to ask, has America's 30-year rise in unmarried cohabitation remained a shadow issue in the family-values debate? "Unlike divorce or unwed childbearing, the trend toward cohabitation has inspired virtually no public comment or criticism," note David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-directors of Rutgers University's National Marriage Project. University of Michigan sociologist Pamela J. Smock, whose survey of recent research will appear in the Annual Review of Sociology to be published this summer, finds that most Americans are still unaware of the extent or significance of cohabitation, even though more than half of today's newlyweds live together before tying the knot, compared with about 10 percent in 1965.
Scholars are quick to point out that the United States is still a long way from Sweden, where unmarried couples--who have all the rights, benefits, and obligations of married partners--make up about 30 percent of couples sharing households. In America, by contrast, cohabiting couples make up only about 7 percent of the total. And for most of those 4 million couples, living together is a transitory business: 55 percent marry and 40 percent end the relationship within five years. "In this country," says University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite, coauthor of the forthcoming Case for Marriage, "it's still mostly up or out."
What Smock has found is that the proportion for whom it's "out" of the union is on the rise. In addition, more and more unmarried women who become pregnant choose to cohabit rather than marry, which means that living together is increasingly a substitute for marriage, particularly, notes Smock, among African-Americans.
One of the biggest revelations of the new research is how many cohabiting arrangements involve children. "About one half of previously married cohabitors and 35 percent of never-married cohabitors have children in the household," Smock reports. She adds that almost 40 percent of all supposedly single-parent families are really two-parent cohabiting families. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that kids in these households fare as well as kids with two married parents. "The nonparent partner . . . has no explicit legal, financial, supervisory, or custodial rights or responsiblities regarding the child of his partner," notes Linda Waite in the winter issue of The Responsive Community. Studies cited by Popenoe and Whitehead suggest there is also a greater risk of physical or sexual abuse in those situations.
Few romantic notions about cohabitational bliss withstand close scrutiny. While there is a little more sex between unmarried cohabitors than between married couples (one more act per month), there's also more cheating by both partners. Then, too, there's more domestic violence and a higher incidence of depression.
But since living together is still mainly a stage in courtship for the majority of marriagebound Americans, the critical question is how the experience affects the subsequent union. Here the evidence is slightly mixed. According to most research, couples who live together--with the possible exception of those who move in already planning to wed--tend to have rockier marriages and a greater risk of divorce. Why this is so is hard to say. It could be that people who cohabit are less traditional in their ideas and less reluctant to divorce. But it's also possible that the experience itself has an effect. "We need to do more qualitative research," says Smock, "and talk to people in their 20s . . . to find out why they are doing what they are doing."