Should We Focus Less on Marriage and More on Stable Cohabitation?

04.03.2013, 8:21 PM

At the recent Brookings Institution event about the findings of the “Knot Yet” report, Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, concluded his portion of the panel with this statement: “We should focus less on marriage and more on stable cohabitation.”

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin echoed a similar, although more tempered, sentiment when he said, “The problem though is not cohabitation per se; the problem is Americanstyle cohabitation. We have the shortest duration of cohabitating unions of any western country…. So, yes, marriage is very important, but so is stability and sometimes we might be able to encourage stability even if we can’t successfully encourage marriage and that might be a worthy goal.”

I’m all for finding ways to help my cohabiting friends and neighbors with children become more stable. I’ve watched sadly as the 20-something cohabiting couple next door went from attached-at-the-hip inloveness as they delighted in parenting their toddler son together, to the bitterness of a break up brought on by cheating, to the birth of a second child and now to the ambiguity of late night visits and subsequent all-nighters spent trying to piece the relationship back together before he has to leave in the dusky dawn morning for his electrician’s job in a nearby city 45 minutes away.

But to me, the point popular among elites—that our energies would best be spent on stabilizing cohabitation, not fussing over marriage—largely misses the point.

Why? Because as cited in the Knot Yet report, the majority of American young adults still want marriage. To say that we should not focus on promoting marriage but rather on making cohabitation more stable is to ignore the aspirations of most cohabiting couples. Furthermore, it is unclear to me how one would go about stabilizing cohabitation without imposing on it many of the same expectations and norms of marriage.

Among the Middle American demographic—defined as the almost 60 percent of high school educated adults who have a high school diploma but no four year college degree—it is rare to meet someone who sees lifelong cohabitation as the preferred long-term alternative to marriage. Of the 74 high school educated young adults my husband and I interviewed as part of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, only one of them said that he straight up did not believe in marriage. Ironically, he was happily married. (He explained that he married to accommodate his Jehovah’s Witness parents, but that as an agnostic he personally saw no point in marriage and would have been fine with lifelong cohabitation.)

So while most Middle Americans cohabit at one point or another, most also want to get married to someone eventually. In their view, living together is what you do in the meantime, while you discern if this is the right person for marriage and get to a basic level of financial independence—but cohabitation is not the end goal.

Given this understanding, cohabitation is by definition unstable. It is a place of deciding, whereas marriage is the decision.  It is a process, or journey; marriage is the culmination, or destination. In the minds of Middle Americans, marriage is what you do when you are certain, when you’re stable. Cohabitation is what happens while you try to get to that point.

Now, we could try to change that. As a society, we could freight cohabitation with some of the same meanings as marriage, like fidelity, commitment, and permanence. In other words, we could encourage young adults to only cohabit once they are committed. Or at least encourage them to wait to have children until their cohabiting relationship is a committed one.

But the question then is how to define commitment? Without the symbols of marriage, how would we as a society recognize and encourage commitment? What would that look like? And how would you distinguish between cohabiting couples that want to be committed and seen as committed, and those that are just testing the waters before deciding whether or not to jump in?

As it stands now, cohabiting couples privately determine their own levels of commitment. So it’s theoretically possible that a cohabiting couple could privately make the same vows that a married couple does. And while I’m sure there are people who do, it’s often the case that even people who say they feel married—like Carly, the 31 year old cohabiting mother who told her imploring daughter that mommy and daddy did not need to get married in order to stay together—find themselves in ambiguous relationship territory. In her first interview, Carly told me clearly that she and her boyfriend were doing just fine without marriage: “I don’t think you need a piece of paper. And that’s all it is…. you don’t necessarily have to be married to live together, be together, have children.”

A year later I talked with Carly again, after she and her boyfriend had broken up. Turns out, he was not as committed as Carly had hoped—he had been seeing other women throughout the duration of their twelve year relationship. Carly now says that because of the experience of “having lived with someone for almost 12 years,” she changed her mind about marriage:

“I think it’s a greater commitment as far as getting married and having the same last name and signing that paper versus just living together…. [When] you’re livin’ together.  Anything could happen…. everybody says, ‘Oh, [marriage is] just a piece of paper,’ but that piece of paper is – tryin’ to think of how to put it.  That piece of paper is more binding than just really being together.  It’s gonna be harder for you to stray. I know there’s people who do, but you’re actually gonna have to work if somethin’ goes wrong.  You’re gonna have to work on it because it’s gonna be a lot harder to separate and just say, “Ah, well, forget it”…. I think that getting married is a greater love and commitment than just living with someone.”

When asked if there is a difference between marriage and cohabitation, the young adults we talked with usually gave some variation of the answer that Carly gave, saying something along the lines of marriage being more of a “bond” than cohabitation. As Tammy, a 22 year old cohabiting mother, said:

“I think it’s easier to walk away from someone that you’re just living with…. because I feel like a lot of guys, whether they act like it or not, they remember that they vowed not to hurt this person or to harm them or to commit adultery or whatever.  I think that has a large part to do with it because you took their hand in marriage through sickness and in health and to be there, and I think that plays in their mind whether anyone believes it or not.”

For Middle Americans like Carly and Tammy, the act of getting married is a sign of the intentionality of the relationship. Marriage carries with it the risk of divorce, and the willingness to accept that risk says a lot about the seriousness of one’s commitments to the other person.

Creating “more stable cohabitation” would mean closing the gap between these two different levels of commitment. (And thus in a way making cohabitation more like marriage.) In order to do this effectively, as the quotes from the young adults above suggest, we cannot rely on the private pillow talk vows of couples.  We need an outside institution that is bigger than the couple themselves to offer accountability, added symbols of meaning like rings and weddings, and a public dimension. As Sara, 25, put it, “It’s good to have a visual. It’s good to have all of your senses involved. When you can see that [the marriage license is] there, that’s just another solid piece of the relationship that you have with somebody.”

If the instability of cohabitation were only a financial instability, then we could attempt to stabilize cohabitation through economic policy. But the instability of cohabitation is also an emotional instability driven largely by a trust deficit, as I discussed in my previous post.

So perhaps I am missing something, but I think that for the majority of cohabiting couples, helping them become more stable means helping them get to the point where they are ready—financially and emotionally—to make the decisive commitment of marriage. As we know from the research, this is what they themselves want.

Cross posted at KnotYet.org.


31 Responses to “Should We Focus Less on Marriage and More on Stable Cohabitation?”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Given this understanding, cohabitation is by definition unstable. It is a place of deciding, whereas marriage is the decision. It is a process, or journey; marriage is the culmination, or destination. In the minds of Middle Americans, marriage is what you do when you are certain, when you’re stable. Cohabitation is what happens while you try to get to that point.

    I agree with this. Cohabitation is (for the most part) hedging one’s bets. For some people, it is the last stopgap before marriage. For most, it functions as a means of “dodging a bullet” (the “bullet” being the added legal rigamarole and expense of divorce. “Breaking up” really is easier than divorce).

    I don’t think that marriage in and of itself adds more stability, though. I don’t think it makes people less likely to cheat. I don’t think it makes them less likely to abuse (physically or emotionally). I don’t think it makes people more mindful or knowledgeable about planning for their futures. I don’t think marriage brings better communication methods, similar negotiating skills, shared goals, similar parenting methods, or mutual worldviews. It just seems that way because the couples who have those traits are the ones who stay married (while those that don’t divorce or don’t marry to begin with).

    We need an outside institution that is bigger than the couple themselves to offer accountability, added symbols of meaning like rings and weddings, and a public dimension.

    What do you mean by “accountability”? To whom? Of the couple to one another? Sure. But I get the feeling that you’re talking about a mutual accountability of not just the couple to one another, but of the couple to the rest of the community and of the community to the couple….and if that’s the case (that you aren’t just referring to the individual couple by themselves)….therein lies the rub. The community is gone. The social contract died in a fire a long time ago.

    Believe it or not, I don’t like coming here and being “Dr. No” all the time (*smile*); I do agree that marriage is a social good, that marriages are more stable than cohabitation for most people, and that creating the conditions that allow couples to thrive both as a couple and as individuals are valuable goals. But I am mystified at the idea that marriage brings with it social support. That isn’t the case for a lot of people. Where I’m from, marriage takes you from “you’re on your own” to “you’re on you’re own, with this other person who’s also on his or her own”. There isn’t any community in the meaningful sense. I don’t think it is possible to have marital stability in the absence of stability elsewhere in the community. There has to be a strong foundation outside, otherwise in the case of “Middle Americans” (man do I loathe that term!), it’s just two economically marginalized people on their own “against the world”…a world that doesn’t even have them as an afterthought.

  2. YYZ says:

    Co-habitating couples

    Recently, in British Columbia Canada, co-habitating couples became the same as married couples if they’ve been living together for two years. Suddenly, many BC’ers woke up one day and realized they were practically ‘married’ without their knowledge.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2013/03/18/bc-common-law-property-rules.html

    Having parallel systems of co-habitating couples, civil unions, and married couples is silly, redundant, wasteful and not needed.

  3. Amber Lapp says:

    Hi La Lubu, I’m very moved by your thoughtful comment. You always give me much to think about. Thank you. And I really resonate with what you say about the importance of the community, and with its unraveling in many parts of the country.

    I’m pretty sure I agree with you that marriage in and of itself does not create stability. Though I also think that even in devastated working class communities (if we can even call them that, as you point out) there are still shards of meaning to marriage that make a couple feel its “weightiness” and act a little differently than they would if they were living together without marriage. (At least that’s how people often talk about it here in Maytown. Whether or not it’s true, there is a strong perception that its true.)

    I think you raise an excellent, excellent point about how if marriage is to “work” it requires a strong community. (Your feeling about what I meant by accountability was right, and I take your point that marriage no longer provides that kind of social accountability for many people. I know someone who cheated on her husband with his best man. Talk about lack of social support for a friend’s marriage. Anyway…) I think I sometimes take for granted that I had a strong faith community growing up which handed down to me a sense of marriage’s meaning and gave me a lot of good models of high-functioning and happy marriages. What you said makes a lot of sense to me–that if you do not have any kind of stability elsewhere in the community, how will you have stability in marriage? I think it would take two very extraordinary people to make it work under those circumstances.

    I remember reading in Kai Erikson’s book Everything in its Path about the Buffalo Creek Flood and how after the flood completely wiped out the community (literally) and killed a tragic proportion of its members, previously friendly neighbors couldn’t get along and previously happy marriages fell apart. Obviously this is an extreme example, but that really spoke to me about how crucial a healthy community is to healthy marriages.

    The more and more I think about it, the more I agree with you that in order to create conditions for thriving families and marriages, we need to fundamentally rebuild civil society. However, the two feed into one another, and so its harder to have a strong civil society without strong families and vice versa. It makes it hard to know where to start. It makes me think that we need to talk about both and try to rebuild both, because they are so interconnected.

    P.S. I remember you saying before that you don’t like the term “Middle America” because it could have a connotation of meaning “the real America” or something like that. Of course it’s only supposed to mean high-school educated–those in the “middle” so to speak when talking about education levels–but I take your point that people could interpret it differently. I noticed that in W. Bradford Wilcox’s (the sociologist who coined the term) latest report instead of Middle America it was “middle America.” Does that do anything to help with that negative connotation?

  4. Mont D. Law says:

    (It makes it hard to know where to start.)

    Before you fix the house you have to put out the fire. The children being raised in this chaos are another generation that is lost to you. All the reasons their parents have for not marrying will be doubled for these kids. They will be less physically healthy, less educated and less capable all round.

    What these kids need is stability and every year that doesn’t happen the problem gets bigger. Give them stability you do two things. Slow the growth of the dysfunctional population and increase your success rate with their children. Absent the chaos your chances go way up. If the only stability you offer is conditional, you may not fail but any success will come slower and cost far more.

  5. Diane M says:

    Excellent article, full of good points.

    To me the strongest argument you make is the simple one – marriage is what people want. Social policy should take that into account.

    My basic reaction to the idea that we should aim for more stable cohabitation instead of marriage is to wonder why it has to be an either/or choice? Most policies that would increase marriage would make cohabiting couples more stable too – good jobs, less alcohol, conflict resolution classes, mental health services, fewer men in jail.

    The other concern I have is that we are not Europe. Here the meaning of cohabitation is that you aren’t ready to make the commitment to stay together forever. Why is changing that better and more inclusive than promoting marriage? Could you change it? How?

    Again, though, I don’t think the policies would look that different in practice. If you want cohabiting couples to be more stable, you want to encourage them to not move in together until they are ready to stay together.

    More importantly, whether your favor marriage or stable cohabitation, you want to encourage couples to not have children until they are in a relationship that they are planning to stay in forever.

    Then there’s the side of me that cares about language. To an academic, it might sound good to promote more stable cohabitation. Right. Nobody wants to get civil unioned and nobody wants to be in a stable cohabitation relationship. We want love and a lasting marriage. So any campaign that goes beyond sociologists and policy wonks talking to each other had better be for marriage.

    So I would end up campaigning for marriage – promote it, strengthen it, make it possible for all couples and families to have it. At the same time, I would be open to the idea that the policies promoting marriage would sometimes help couples that were living together have a better relationship and stay together, even if they didn’t get married.

    I would also like to see conservatives and liberals come together to promote the idea that people shouldn’t move in together too soon.

    And I think the most important thing we need to promote is that children should be born after marriage.

  6. La Lubu says:

    Thank you, Amber. I’m having a hard time being able to articulate just exactly what I want to say because its wrapped up in so much emotion. “My life is a Bruce Springsteen song” is the quick black-humor quip I usually offer to people who only know that world—my world—through pop culture; who haven’t grown up in it, who haven’t had that world form an intimate part of their history, personality, outlook.

    (On middle America/Middle America: either way I dislike it. It doesn’t read to me as if it is only intended to refer to one’s educational background; it reads more like it is intended to conjure an certain image—of race, of ethnicity, of class, of religion. I would prefer a phrase that clearly stated something about educational background; a phrase that wasn’t previously used to refer to a constellation of traits outside of one’s educational background.)

  7. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – I am not sure exactly what policies you are suggesting. It sounds like one is birth control, right? What is the second?

    @LaLubu – well, marriage could make outsiders less willing to sleep with your partner.

    However, I think the key is probably slowing things down and not living with this guy and having kids with him until he is ready to make a real commitment.

    I don’t know how to restore communities, although I think policies like create jobs, provide mental health services, prevent the overuse of alcohol, etc. would strengthen communities as well as families.

    And I think if families were less stressed and more stable, communities would also be stronger. That might then help the families.

  8. La Lubu says:

    @LaLubu – well, marriage could make outsiders less willing to sleep with your partner.

    I think it’s pretty clear from the example that it doesn’t. What stands out to me in all the examples offered so far from this middle America project is that all of the couples described have seriously destructive, dysfunctional behaviors in their relationships. Behaviors that most people would regard as “dealbreakers”—conditions that are effectively incompatible with marriage.

    However, I think the key is probably slowing things down and not living with this guy and having kids with him until he is ready to make a real commitment.

    Behaviorally, women in “middle America” aren’t doing anything differently from women in “upper America”, except they: (a) don’t have affordable access to the more effective means of birth control that upper America does, (b) don’t get paid the same wages that upper American women do, and are thus unable to secure affordable housing on their own wages like upper American women, and (c) cannot realistically expect that their middle American male partners will ever be ready to “settle down” since culturally, “settling down” is still tied to financial security.

    Upper American women have sex prior to marriage, and have usually had several partners prior to marriage. They have usually lived on their own for several years prior to marriage. They seek and are sought by partners who have similar educational and career backgrounds, and have achieved the same life stage re: “settling down” at the same age frame.

    How do you plan on convincing large numbers of middle American women to remain single and childless until they find a suitable, marriageable partner—which, for most of them is going to mean remaining single and childless, period? (since they aren’t dating the same group of men) Or do you instead plan to convince these women that they (we) need to look for partners among the divorced men our father’s age who are looking for “second chance” families? Or do you instead aim to change the cultural assumption that marriage should wait for economic stability; that perhaps parents should be financially responsible for their children until the age of 35 or 40, and should expect to shoulder the burden for economically struggling adult children, their spouses and grandchildren (which frankly is going on right now, and is not just crushing people with stress but contributing to the problem of divorce and breakups)?

    Again, until we first address the problem of low wages, no benefits, the loss of the 40-hour workweek, and employment instability—-all this is just talk. I doubt you are going to be able to convince a generation of people to “just wait” since “just waiting” a decade or so to have children often comes with the consequence of ending up childless. I remember being advised to go ahead and be a single mother back when I was 26, because otherwise I might lose my chance at motherhood altogether. The folks who advised me such meant well too. They knew that in my demographic, the chance of me being able to find a partner in my thirties who hadn’t already fathered children (in a marital or nonmarital relationship) and hadn’t already had a vasectomy were slim. They knew that the type of men who have advanced education and are ready to start settling down and creating a family in their thirties don’t date women like me (no education, blue collar).

  9. Mont D. Law says:

    (And I think the most important thing we need to promote is that children should be born after marriage.)

    I have no problem with this in principle. However, I’d be very interested to know how you’re going to convince two generations of several classes of women not to have children. The lack of marriageable men is not going to get better in the foreseeable future and we agree that not marrying the men available to them is rational.

    (It sounds like one is birth control, right? What is the second?)

    You are misunderstanding me. To stop the chaos you’re going to have to spend the next 40 years focused on supporting children regardless of your opinion of their parents. All interventions need to be focused on producing as many healthy, well educated and capable adults as you can. Most of what that will entail is pretty obvious. The only different idea I have is expansive mental health and social work interventions. I see a lot of the behaviour we are concerned with as related to depression and PTSD in these populations, adult and child. I think bad nutrition is also a huge factor.

  10. Diane M says:

    LaLubu, I tend to think that a critical difference between college-educated women and other women is hope for the future.

    Birth control is important and I think we should make sure everyone can get it. However, I’m not sure it would make a big difference because I’m not sure the lack of access to it is the cause.

    I would really like to hear from the Lapps or other researchers on this one – we know that a large percentage of births outside of marriage were unplanned. Were they caused by not using birth control? by not being able to afford birth control?

    Do college-educated women in fact use different methods of birth control from other women?

    Another thing about college-educated women is that when they are in their 20s, they don’t usually have great jobs with lots of money. They may have roommates or live with a guy. So I don’t think that is likely to be the issue.

    I get back to hope because I think that if you see a future where you will have more money and be married, then it is easier to push yourself to wait for a relationship and to be very, very careful about pregnancy.

  11. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – they “cannot realistically expect that their middle American male partners will ever be ready to “settle down” since culturally, “settling down” is still tied to financial security.”

    I think the key is not just changing the women, but changing the men, too.

    The way I see it we have a huge mess with lots of different factors feeding into the end result – lack of steady jobs, drinking, people who have no faith in long-term relationships because of their own family history, lack of community, possibly more women than men overall, possibly debt.

    I would love to convince Melinda Gates to start a Marriage and Family center in Ohio that provided all kinds of counseling and employment and birth control and worked to build up churches and community organizations. Realistically, though we may not be able to tackle all of the problems at once.

    I still think it’s worth the effort to start somewhere.

    When it comes to advice – well, I would sure advise my daughter to not live with a guy until she knew him well enough to trust him and to avoid pregnancy until she was married. The alternative is advising her to go through raising children on her own or with sporadic help.

  12. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – your suggestion sounds a little bit to me like writing off the parents’ generation.

    However, it may be that we would want the same programs really – jobs and counseling and health care for everyone.

    But at the same time, why not advocate for marriage? I don’t think there has to be a contradiction between helping children from all kinds of families and trying to change the system so that parents get married before having children.

    The other thing I keep worrying about is the political realities. It might be that it would work if we became Canada, but what if people – the same middle class people we are talking about – don’t want to vote for that? What can we do that is not giving up?

  13. Diane M says:

    @Amber and David Lapp – I was listening to a program on the radio about businesses and trust. They were talking about how in the past employees could trust their employer to not fire them, etc. I wondered if you saw any connection between the loss of that trust and the breakdown of trust in general that might affect families?

  14. La Lubu says:

    They were talking about how in the past employees could trust their employer to not fire them, etc. I wondered if you saw any connection between the loss of that trust and the breakdown of trust in general that might affect families?

    THANK YOU.

  15. Amber Lapp says:

    Hi everyone–great comments. Thank you.

    Diane, in response to your questions:

    1.)

    I would really like to hear from the Lapps or other researchers on this one – we know that a large percentage of births outside of marriage were unplanned. Were they caused by not using birth control? by not being able to afford birth control?

    Do college-educated women in fact use different methods of birth control from other women?

    There are some really interesting stats in this report by the CDC. Also, this report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy talks about the ambivalence or the “fog zone,” as they call it, that many young adults have about getting pregnant. I’m going to look over these more in the next few days and post a blog about them that seeks to answer the question you posed, Diane, because I was so startled by the stats. If you look at the graph on page 7 of the CDC Report, you’ll see that actually the less educated are much more likely than the college educated to use what are considered to be the most reliable forms of birth control, like sterilization and hormonal methods like implants, patches, rings, etc.

    2.)

    I was listening to a program on the radio about businesses and trust. They were talking about how in the past employees could trust their employer to not fire them, etc. I wondered if you saw any connection between the loss of that trust and the breakdown of trust in general that might affect families?

    Yes! (And I’d be curious what program you were listening to.) I think the loss of trust b/t employer and employee is related to the general breakdown of trust in community and families (although I’m not sure of the exact relationship or which came first or if they all happened at the same time). For example, I talked with one young married couple with three children. When they had their third child, the husband was fired from his job at McDonald’s because he failed to come in to work his shift (because he had to rush his wife to the hospital!). He had requested that week off, but didn’t realize that his manager had accidentally marked down the following week. So he hadn’t called in to let them know b/c he thought he was already off. Rather than accept it all as a misunderstanding and apply a bit of grace like an employer would do if you had a personal relationship with him, the husband (and father of a new baby) was fired. And, of course, that affected his family, especially he and his wife often argue about money.

  16. La Lubu says:

    Amber: the CDC report breaks contraceptive use down by education, but not by income. I think that would be useful information too. Women who are poor enough to get a Medicaid card often have better access to the more effective forms of BC than working poor women who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid card, but not enough to pay for health insurance or pay out-of-pocket as an uninsured person (uninsured people are charged more—no insurance group discount).

    Most of the tradespeople I know (or their spouses) were sterilized before the age of 30, and it was near universal before the age of 35. Why? Because that is the only form of BC covered by our insurance. Insurance for the building trades typically is operated as a trust fund, with contractors and (union) business managers as trustees. The trustees are all older men (usually between the ages of 50-75), so they see BC as a needless cost. Why pay for BC, when you can just have your two or three kids young, then get a vasectomy? So that’s what people do. And most of the guys don’t have a problem with this system, since they’re typically married to women with a college education and professional job with insurance of their own. (vasectomy is a popular topic of conversation at the break table; kinda like birth or breastfeeding stories are for mothers….in case you’re wondering why I know that much about my brothers’ contraception habits! Who goes “under the knife” seems to mostly be based on the delivery of the final child—if c-section, tubal ligation. If vaginal delivery, the guy gets a vas.)

    I suspect this may be happening for other people without four-year degrees; choosing sterilization because that’s what is covered, while reversible forms are not.

  17. Diane M says:

    @Amber and LaLubu –

    It would be good to get more data, but what you’re finding matches my experience. College-educated women my age often have a strong distrust of hormonal birth control and IUDs and possible side effects. So even if they have more money and better insurance, they may be more likely to choose other methods. I am not sure how this plays out with younger college women.

    I noticed that using natural family planning was also more common for more educated women. That makes sense to me for three reasons:

    1. College-educated women may have more power in their relationships with men and be more able to say no.

    2. College-educated women are more likely to be married in which case it less of a disaster if you do get pregnant. (Although I’m not sure of this, since college-educated women also cohabit when they are young and non-college-educated women also get married, just later.)

    3. College-educated women have more money so again, it’s less of a disaster if you get pregnant.

    Re: radio show – It was on NPR and I was driving somewhere.

  18. Diane M says:

    Another question for Amber to look up -

    How do patterns of cohabitation for college-educated women and non-college-educated women compare?

    I know that college-educated women do cohabit and rarely have children.

    What I’m wondering is if college-educated women mostly go on and marry the man they live with? How many men do they live with on average before they marry? How many sex partners do they have before marriage on average?

    Are the numbers different for non-college-educated women?

    I’m asking because in my peer group, most of the couples I know lived together before marriage. I think a majority of them went on to marry the first person they lived with, although not all did. Many may have also had a serious boyfriend or girlfriend before living with anyone, also.

    I’m not sure if this is because of my age, though, not the college part. (Living together was still something parents and many others disapproved of way back then.)

  19. La Lubu says:

    What I’m wondering is if college-educated women mostly go on and marry the man they live with? How many men do they live with on average before they marry? How many sex partners do they have before marriage on average?

    I believe that the CDC stats show that non-college-educated and college-educated women have similar numbers of sexual partners. I don’t know for certain, but would predict that the cohabitation rate of lower-income women is much higher due to the rent vs. income ratio. College-educated women spend their early twenties in dorms or with (platonic) roommates; they don’t have to worry about their roomies skipping out before the lease is up (which is why lower-income working class women are reluctant to roommate with platonic partners—too much instability as people move to other cities, lose jobs, move in with romantic partners, etc. If your name is on the lease and you can’t find another roommate in time, you’re left holding the bag for the full amount of rent). People in college stick around because they want to finish their education; they don’t typically get a wild hair to move 1000 miles away because their cousin can get ‘em a better job where they’re working.

    With that said, while I know people of both genders who have lived with people they didn’t marry, I don’t know anyone under the age of 50 who married someone he or she didn’t live with first. Cohabitation is near-universal, and in my SES/geographic/cultural milieu it hasn’t had any stigma for at least three decades. People typically lived together since the late 70s; I never heard anyone disapproving (and people are seriously vocal about their opinions where I’m from, LOL!! Good or bad, you’re gonna know how they feel. *smile*). Once in a blue moon I’d hear some adult or another hoping that the cohabitation would result in a breakup instead of a foolish mistake of a marriage….but never heard anyone say anything negative about cohabitation before marriage. I think the cultural change there (because no doubt there would have been disapproval of cohabitation in my parents’ era—they didn’t cohabit first) was due to young people leaving town, which they increasingly did if they wanted to do something besides work in a factory, and universally did when factory work was no longer an option. Parents didn’t expect to be able to control or have any say in what their young adult children were doing in the Big City. The saying where I’m from is “my home my rules”; the corollary is ‘your home, your own rules’.

  20. Hector says:

    Diane M,

    I think the issues with NFP are more that to use it correctly requires a certain level of education and training, also that educated people are more likely to participate in organized religion and ‘sweat the details.’

  21. Hector says:

    La Lubu,

    About two thirds of couples live together before marrying, and one third don’t. I wouldn’t call that ‘universal’.

  22. Mont D. Law says:

    I read somewhere, and I can’t remember where that living together had no impact on divorce rates as long as you married the first partner you lived with. My guess is education and income plays a big role in that for the reasons La Lubu pointed out.

    (About two thirds of couples live together before marrying, and one third don’t. I wouldn’t call that ‘universal’.)

    Since she qualified her statement this means nothing.

    (Women who are poor enough to get a Medicaid card often have better access to the more effective forms of BC than working poor women who earn too much to qualify for the Medicaid card, but not enough to pay for health insurance or pay out-of-pocket as an uninsured person (uninsured people are charged more—no insurance group discount).)

    When discussing birth control a distinction must be made between access and availability. One can get birth control from Walmart for $10. But one needs to get a prescription from a doctor. Depending on one’s insurance plan or lack thereof the doctor’s visit may be out of reach. That was the point of the study where they gave low income women their birth control pills a year at a time.

  23. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – this is really interesting. “I read somewhere, and I can’t remember where that living together had no impact on divorce rates as long as you married the first partner you lived with.”

    I wonder if that is because people who marry their first partner are people who are generally less likely to switch partners? Or is there something about finding someone early on that is helpful?

  24. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Mont D. Law,

    Not really. Even if you restrict it to people without a college education, cohabitation is far from universal. For people without a high school diploma, the rate is about 75%, compared to about 50% for college educated people, so 25% of people don’t cohabit.

  25. La Lubu says:

    About two thirds of couples live together before marrying, and one third don’t. I wouldn’t call that ‘universal’.

    I’m sorry Hector, I phrased that incorrectly. I should have been clearer that I was speaking strictly about my SES/geographical/cultural background.

  26. La Lubu says:

    Depending on one’s insurance plan or lack thereof the doctor’s visit may be out of reach.

    And it’s not just the cost of the doctor’s visit itself, but the cost of missing work to go see the doctor—and that impacts every hourly worker without sick leave, not just the poor. One in three US workers have zero sick leave, and of those who do have some, most parents opt to not use it for themselves so they have enough to cover the inevitable times their kids are sick—to keep themselves from getting fired.

  27. Hector says:

    La Lubu,

    As I think I pointed out, even among people who don’t graduate high school (who you would think would find it most difficult to marry), about 20% of people don’t cohabit before they marry. so no, there’s no stratum of society where its universal.

    I don’t know where you live, geographically: I live in Michigan, and I know plenty of people (generally practicing evangelicals or Catholics) who don’t cohabit before marriage.

  28. La Lubu says:

    I wonder if that is because people who marry their first partner are people who are generally less likely to switch partners? Or is there something about finding someone early on that is helpful?

    It seems like you’re implying that this is some innate personal temperament, and I don’t think that’s the case. First, because if each of the pair has gone to college (and especially to grad school), then they haven’t found each other ‘early’—living together before marriage in one’s mid-to-late twenties or even early thirties, after one has already started the groundwork for one’s work path is inherently more stable than living together in one’s late teens-early twenties while working part-time, minimum wage jobs, regardless of personal temperamental factors.

    But besides that, I think it makes a big difference when people have some kind of life path (even if the details aren’t worked out) than if they don’t. And sometimes that is because of temperament, but other times it is because they don’t have a working model for a life path that is actually worth planning for, or because the life-path models that worked for their predecessors simply won’t work anymore.

    And it’s the latter that is behind so much of the difference in young men and women in the working class. It’s much easier for young women to forge a path because they aren’t going up against cultural expectations when they do so; the young men can’t follow their father’s or grandfather’s path—the jobs either don’t exist or don’t exist in enough quantity. So, it’s not uncommon to see young women (some of whom have already had children) with or working on their associates’ degree (or some reasonable equivalent certificate/licensing program) dating young men who haven’t even necessarily gotten a GED or high school diploma. But those relationships don’t last—over time, the stark difference creates too much separation.

    Having skills that one can earn a living on; skills that involve some level of mastery, skills one can take personal pride in and that gain one a certain level of social recognition—-all that is important to one’s development as an adult. When that is delayed, a form of “arrested development” follows. And that’s what I see happening among young men who haven’t been able to find meaningful work. It happens to young women as well; it just doesn’t seem to be happening in the same percentages, and young women have the fallback position of finding fulfillment in motherhood (so, even if she has a crap job, she can still take pride in doing parenting well). Because the constructs of masculinity haven’t changed along with the economic landscape, the same is not true for young men.

    (FWIW—yes, feminism changed a lot for women. But what goes unsaid a lot of the time is how much change happened to men’s and women’s roles due to immigration and the reasons behind it. So…men adapted by taking on a “find a way”—y’know, search for something better, and women took on a “MAKE a way”—make a way out of no way, don’t search for a better opportunity, because there isn’t one elsewhere; you have to make it. Because the women were the ones who had to someone make a way after the men were gone—for years, or permanently.)

  29. La Lubu says:

    I don’t know where you live, geographically: I live in Michigan, and I know plenty of people (generally practicing evangelicals or Catholics) who don’t cohabit before marriage.

    I live in Illinois, and while I don’t live in a dense urban area (which realistically would only refer to Chicago!), I’ve never lived anywhere other than an urban area. FWIW I didn’t cohabit before marriage, as I was already in the process of moving elsewhere—there wasn’t any need. But where I’m from, parents typically advise their children to live together first. Personally, the only evangelicals I know are my uncle and his family (he left Catholicism for a really radical form of evangelicalism; we don’t have much contact because…well, he has become the type of person who sees conspiracies everywhere. After the hellos and catching-up pleasantries are done, he starts sounding like Mel Gibson’s character in “Conspiracy Theory”. I love him…but I have my limits on how much of that I’m going to listen to). My family background is Catholic (as is much of my social circle’s backgrounds); here, most Catholics live together prior to marriage. I’m surprised that you say the same isn’t true for Michigan.

  30. Diane M says:

    I think it’s pretty common for all of us to have experiences that aren’t exactly the same as the statistics. We tend to hang out with people like us, not just in terms of education or income, but also politics, religion, and region of the country.

    So sure, 25% of people don’t live together before marriage, and most of the people I know did. If I think hard enough, I am sure I know people who did not live together before marriage, but they are not in my close social circles.

    It happens with divorce, too. For years I wondered, why do people say marriage is falling apart when most of the people I know from when I was young are married and have been married for 15 or 20 years or more? I knew some people who were divorced, but it was probably less than 20% of the group. And some of the people who got divorced ended up married to someone else for 20 years.

    I figured that divorce was something that went wild in the 1970s, but had since calmed down and all was well. The divorce rate was falling, too, for people who married in the 1990s or later.

    It turns out that there is a bigger picture, though. Most people haven’t been to a four-year college and most people have a much higher divorce rate. And it doesn’t help to have the divorce rate fall, if people are having children and breaking up without being married.

    This is another one of the values of doing studies – it forces us to look beyond our own social groups or areas of the country.

    Hopefully, it will also lead to a real discussion of what to do. In my opinion, liberals need to be willing to say, yes, that is a problem, and conservatives need to be willing to say, yes, we have to spend some money.

  31. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – I wasn’t assuming that people who married the first person they lived with were necessarily college-educated.

    “It seems like you’re implying that this is some innate personal temperament, and I don’t think that’s the case. First, because if each of the pair has gone to college (and especially to grad school), then they haven’t found each other ‘early’—living together before marriage in one’s mid-to-late twenties or even early thirties, after one has already started the groundwork for one’s work path is inherently more stable than living together in one’s late teens-early twenties while working part-time, minimum wage jobs, regardless of personal temperamental factors.”

    I was just thinking, why would people who marry the first person they lived with be less likely to get divorced than people who live with someone, break up, live with someone else and then get married? Is it something about them or something about marrying the first person you live with?

    I could imagine it going either way – some people might be less likely to change partners whether they live together or get married. Or it could be that breaking up with someone you live with makes you less trusting later on. Or it could be that people who chose bad live-in partners had trouble choosing marriage partners.

    However, I think you are making another suggestion that could be true – maybe people who marry the first person they live with, don’t live with someone until they are older. Then they are more mature. Although, if the person who lived with one girl and then broke up and lived with a second girl and got married might be the same age when he got married.

    Another theory might be that having children plays a role in it all. If a guy has a baby with the first girl he lives with, that will put a strain on any later relationship with a girlfriend he lives with and marries. But people who marry the first person they live with might only have children with each other.

    I guess this is another area for someone to research.