The Atlantic reports on the rise of unmarried families:
More parents are likely choosing to live together without marrying because of the economy, said Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor who specializes in cohabitation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Cohabiting parents, according to the Pew study, are significantly younger and less educated than both single parents and married parents. Many Millennials who came of age during or soon after the Great Recession are still struggling to find financial security. Even though they’re making, on average, more money than Millennials a few years ago, their net worth is still low, compared to past generations, largely because of their debt. “That’s just not the kind of stability that people want to have before they start making legal ties to each other,” said Kuperberg.
It’s an increasingly familiar story. Often spun positively with a young people “blazing their own trails” narrative and sometimes with the suggestion that it is reducing or could reduce divorces down the line. The catch with these narratives is that the data we have provides no reason to believe that the latter is true – and they’ve been looking to validate it a long time – and the cohabiting couples are inherently unstable. Later in the piece, it goes from a claim that “many” of these relationships are just as committed as married couples in one paragraph to an acknowledgement of what the data says in the next:
Not everyone is so sure this trend is a good thing. Cohabiting unions, however well-intentioned, are still far less stable than marriages. They lack what Kuperberg calls the “external barriers”—legal fees, formal paperwork, court processes—that stand between marriage and divorce. Compared to kids born into marriage, kids born to cohabiting parents are less likely to continue to live with both parents as they grow up. On the other hand, the divorce rate is down, which, according to Kuperberg, signals that people who may have once rushed into marriage are instead choosing to cohabit.
Much of this is indeed simple selection: Couples that choose not to marry are more likely to be vulnerable for reasons independent of that choice. Indeed, reasons that the decision not to marry are in fact the result of. If you are with someone and they’re suggesting cohabiting instead of marrying, you may be entering a situation with asymmetrical commitment if you don’t genuinely feel the same way. But if you both have some reservations, or you both have no reservations and there is some other reason you don’t want to get married, then it probably won’t hurt your chances at relationship success.
Now, being the resident scold that I am on this issue, in the first case I would question the wisdom of cohabiting to begin with. You may not be entering a marriage, but you’re entering a situation that is about to become much, much harder to leave if things aren’t working out. A lot of people enter with the belief that they can use it as a trial run, but cases where people slide into a bad marriage through cohabitation and inertia may outnumber cases where mistakes are avoided through cohabiting experience. I believe this is the case and why the data we have doesn’t really support the Trial Run theory. You can most likely know what you need to know before you live together. The main reason for living together is financial, which is actually the reason I am most sympathetic to.
In the second case, there’s a lot of indication that it doesn’t actually make a whole lot of difference. In cases where couples are already engaged – where they have already affirmatively made the decision to get married – there appears to be no statistical effect either way. I moved in with my now-wife while she was back home lining up the ducks for our wedding. it was snowing and the wind was so fierce I was actually blown over while carrying the mattress twice. And I finished, two days later we were married, and a week after that we were living together. But despite my unusual views on this and my own experience, even I can’t muster a substantive objection to avoid doing what I did.
The original article is about families with children, though, and children complicate the equation. On the one hand, stability becomes a lot more important. The argument for getting married becomes stronger. The decision not to get married for abstract reasons becomes weaker. I’m reminded of Dharma Montgomery’s words to her parents in Greg & Dharma:
“There were times growing up when I wish you guys were married. Like that time in ballet class when all the kids called me The Graceful Little Bastard… All my life, you guys told me that your way was better because every day you chose to be together. Did you ever stop to think that there was somebody in that house that woke up in the morning wondering if this was the day her parents were going to choose not to be together?”
In this case, it becomes less about whether you cohabit with an eye towards marriage and whether you are cohabiting as a decision in itself. I’m not sure what effect the chronology of events has for couples who move in together and get married if you hold everything else – including the husband and wife or partners themselves – constant. However, there likely is a difference between how couples that are and aren’t married handle conflict. The latter are inherently less stable, which may not be so good for the kids.
Sometimes, of course, that’s what you want. Or rather, the relationship itself is inherently unstable and the ability to leave without a minimum of legal entanglement is a release valve. The Atlantic may have been trying to be cute titling its article “The Age of ‘Shotgun Cohabitation'” but that is the context for me where cohabitation makes a lot of sense. I believe that, in general, shotgun marriages have something of a bad rep and are not even something to be discouraged, depending on the circumstances. To be clear, that last part is very, very important.
In the event that you find yourself in a situation that you might become an unwed father and mother, the biggest question ought to be the highest level of commitment you’re comfortable with that doesn’t involve a sense of existential dread. Okay, maybe you don’t need existential dread, but the highest level of commitment before the flag keeper in your mind breaks out the red one and starts waving it around like a crazy person. If you had been contemplating marriage anyway and hadn’t decided against it, you should give it even more consideration. If you’re in a vague maybe-relationship, you ought to really consider formalizing it and seeing if you can make it work. And if you’re in a relationship that had been casual, you should really consider cohabiting if you’re (quite reasonably) uncomfortable marrying them.
Everybody, including parents, need to be mindful of their own welfare. If it’s a situation where she fears abuse, then obviously I am not advocating that she risk it. That includes cases where she has no specific reason to fear abuse other than that he’s a man, but she just doesn’t know the guy. People have to take care of themselves and it’s not good for kids for their parents to be in an abusive relationship, or even just a desperately unhappy one.
Apart from that, though, I believe in trying to make it work if you can. Enough so that I suspect my general skepticism towards cohabiting. It’s not the only path and sometimes others are better, but if you’re in this situation there is value in having everybody under one roof and giving the relationship every chance to succeed.