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Unmarried With Children

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.


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Will Truman is a former para-IT professional who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He is also on Twitter. ...more →

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43 thoughts on “Unmarried With Children

  1. I don’t mean to pry, but I’m wondering if a sentence or two was edited from this section?

    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.”

    I’m left wondering if you cohabited for 2-days, an entire blizzardly winter (where it might have taken you an indeterminately long time to move a mattress under extreme duress – but we’re given to understand that eventually you finished!), or not until a week(!) after you were married.

    It seems important to your POV cred, so might be worth clarifying?

    Substantively, I appreciate that you are coming at this obliquely and with some sympathy… but I wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile these positions.

    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.

    with:

    And if you’re in a relationship that had been casual, you should really consider cohabiting if you’re (quite reasonably) uncomfortable marrying them.

    My mind wants to insert a [not] to stay consistent with the descending order of cohabitating decisions… but I’m not entirely sure? I guess I’m unclear then on when the red flags would come out if you are already uncomfortable marrying them? I’m sure you have an angle there, but I’m a little lost (but that could very well be on me).

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    • I’m left wondering if you cohabited for 2-days, an entire blizzardly winter (where it might have taken you an indeterminately long time to move a mattress under extreme duress – but we’re given to understand that eventually you finished!), or not until a week(!) after you were married.

      Ahhh, fair question. It was a logistical thing. Our wedding was down south. She left on Tuesday, I moved in on Thursday, we got married on Saturday, and then lived together after the honeymoon.

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      • Gotcha… so the mattress escapade was on the front end in the moving “from” not on the back end moving “to”… maybe some visio or gant charts to outline the move and marriage logistics project… you know, the ones you used at the time?

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    • On the second, they are contradictory but one is talking about relationships in general while the other is relationships if there is a kid in the picture. I switch gears in between, or tried to. If you don’t have kids, move cautiously when it comes to moving in together. If you do have kids, move to your maximum level of comfort and give it your all as you are already bound to the other person so the tradeoffs change.

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  2. I can’t fathom the concept of ““That’s just not the kind of stability that people want to have before they start making legal ties to each other,” said Kuperberg.” but moving in together and having a kid.

    If you’re burdened by ed debt and you don’t have the prospects of a high paying job, having a kid seems to be “da stoopid”. But what do I know–I didn’t want kids in the first place.

    I lived with the gf for about 2 years before we got married. Frankly, marriage didn’t matter to me. But I discovered she really wanted to be married, so I did. Not much changed for me except she got much happier and I was happy she was happy.

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  3. I moved into my wife’s condo the day before our wedding. We certainly weren’t angels. There were lots of pre-marriage sleepovers, etc. We basically just did it as a nice gesture towards her conservative parents.

    My daughter lives with her boyfriend. I don’t pry into their marriage plans, but I do get concerned over kids. I want her to wait as long as possible. Something that has aided that is her environmentalism. She’s actually concerned that having a kid would be morally wrong because it increases her carbon footprint. I’m sure this phase will pass, but it aids dad’s goals without me being controlling so win-win.

    In general, I find marriage to be hard but worth the effort. I adore my wife, even when she makes me crazy, and we really are a great team. Doubling our income has been nice, but obviously that comes with the pitfalls of spending money like you have two incomes.

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  4. My now-wife and I moved in together a year or so before we got married. One of the things we wanted to do was go from “your” money and “my” money to “our” money. Almost 40 years ago in New Jersey, this was a surprisingly difficult thing to do officially.

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      • We still haven’t really combined our finances (our five year anniversary was Tuesday, by the way!). Technically, we’re on each others’ accounts, but we have hers and mine as well as one “joint account” (even though they’re all technically joint accounts and we could theoretically access each other’s money whenever we want). When we pay rent and other bills, she writes a check for her half and I write one for mine. (That’s an over-simplified version of what we do, but it’ll do for this conversation.)

        If one of us lost our jobs, we’d have to reconsider how we do things, of course. But so far that’s how it works.

        I will agree that mixing money, or even talking about money, is an intimate, even (as you say) “surreal” experience. We are (knock on wood) very fortunate to have a lot of resources and we have no debt, but even with those advantages, talking about money and spending is hard. It’s rewarding, but it is also a very personal thing in a way that I’m not sure I was expecting before I got married.

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        • Congrats on the anniversary, and it took my wife and me six years or so to combine finances. Now, we have six personal accounts (checking and savings accounts for both plus a joint one of each), plus one for my business, along with various retirement accounts. A lot of this comes from the desire to have complete autonomy over our own money with no questions from the other partner, along with ease of access for bills and major joint purchases.

          And yes, we now have a will.

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          • That’s close to what we do. Between us, we have 5 bank accounts. While we’re both on all the accounts, there’s only one we consider an account for joint expences. At first we considered those for things more like emergency or health related expenses. We’re edging toward using that account to pay some bills, but it’s still in theory an extraordinary fund.

            We’re working on a will right now and hope to have one completed in a month.

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            • Hubby and I merged accounts early early on once I moved to the US permanently. It wasn’t hard because neither of us had much money to speak of. It is sooooo easy having merged finances though it requires a certain degree of policing of roles. Someone has to be the bad guy tightwad and someone needs to be the live a little crowbar the wallet open guy.. otherwise it gets bad.

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        • …and we have no debt…

          Our experience was that getting a mental handle on debt was harder than income. “We” had student debt, which I had worked very hard to avoid. “We” had a car payment on a vehicle my wife couldn’t drive (she has some sort of weird mental block and I’ve never been able to teach her to drive a manual).

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        • Here’s how we combined our finance.

          When living together and the first year or five of the marriage, there was mine, your, and our, money. We would transfer money from one account to another to cover joint expenses like the mortgage. One day the wife came and complained that she was tired of paying her bills. I offered to pay them IF we had a joint account. Problem solved. I paid the bills, we each got an allowance, and it was all good.

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          • We’re evolving toward that system, except with no allowance. In other words, we still have hers and mine, but more and more of the bills are being paid from the joint account. (That’s part of how what I wrote above was “over-simplified.”)

            Also for us–similar to something I think you mentioned above–we don’t want and are planning not to have children. That simplifies things.

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  5. Being married is one of those things that I’m having difficulty putting into words that would easily explain what it’s like to someone who is not married.

    I suppose I’d try to talk about siblings and roommates and small non-profit businesses. Sure, it’s *KIND OF* like those things? Except there’s a romantic element?

    It’s with that in mind that I try to wrap my head around parenting. I don’t have kids. So when I try to figure out what it’s like, I’m stuck trying to comprehend the whole issue of whether it’s like having a cat that can’t take care of itself for years and years that has your DNA that is really receptive to machine learning techniques. Oh, and you’d die to protect it.

    I can’t really see wanting to do that with someone that I am not married to. I can’t really see *RISKING* doing that with someone that I am not married to.

    And I know that my description of parenting is probably as faulty as my description of marriage.

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  6. This is sort of what I touched on in the other thread about child welfare.
    That in 1918, a young couple would likely have had their child born into a large household of extended family of aunts, cousins, and grandparents.
    The social pressure to make the marriage the right one, and to make it work, and the accompanying support- financial, counseling, the day care/ babysitting/ parenting advice was the traditional support network that people throughout time relied upon.

    Nowadays we don’t have that.We have sheared off the stifling ties of family, yay, but also whatever sources of help we need.

    I don’t have any suggestions for how to square this, or put the toothpaste back in the tube.

    Maybe a start would be to recognize how insufficient the nuclear family is, to admit just how much outside help and support they need to function well.

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    • This is a very interesting point and I agree. My brother-in-law got divorced about a year ago. They started dating in college, got married right after graduation and then moved from Chicago to Boston to London to Washington D.C. while having three kids along the way. The whole time it was just them with no real support system. Not only did the kids have to keep making new friends but so did the parents. No grandparents to babysit so they could have a date night. No family get-togethers on the weekends. Just their little family…all…the…time. That could crush any marriage. My entire family is here in Louisville and I couldn’t imagine leaving them.

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      • Sometimes when I read these awful stories of abuse and dysfunction, a picture emerges of two young people, maybe without functioning parental models, isolated and alone trying to step into the new terrain of being spouses and parents without a road map.

        And I recall how terrifying new marriage and babies are, how every pillar of our support- finances, time, sleep- are pushed to the limit.

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      • Yeah, that’s pretty much been our life as well. Living way the hell and gone from any extended family and really, the last time we’ve had close friends (as a couple, opposed to her work friends and my work friends) was when I was in the Navy. It demands a lot from the primary relationship, more than it can really sustain.

        I’ve often bemoaned the fact that I’m just not the sort of person that can believe in God, or at least be comfortable pretending to. Because church could help a lot with that.

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        • I think it can certainly be done, but it’s hard. I have a friend from grade school who married a career military guy. They move about once every 18-24 months. They (and their kids) are extremely resilient, however military bases have well-developed support structures in place to ease the stress of these moves. If you’re outside the military, yes, a congregation or some other organization with a social structure would certainly help. Unfortunately, in the case of my brother-in-law, they were not particularly devout. I think he made connections through his kids’ sports teams, but I’m not sure how much that helped.

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      • This was a dilemma for Mrs. A Teacher and I when we got married. Her family (immediate) lived on the west side of the state where mine was on the east. I also had a full time professional teaching job there. She was a new graduate and was thinking about additional education. But when we made the choice to shack up over here on the east (we lived in sin for a year before the wedding), it also created some drama for her parents.

        Not that we were, ya know, living in sin, but that she was now 3 hours away by car. Of course part of our math had also been that her father had been forced to move twice in the last 5 years for work wherein my family was in the same house they had when I was in 7th grade. (They’re still there too).

        It’s really hard to put to words the simple power of that family network though, being able to say “this is a bad spot we’re in” and have actionable solutions put out rather than “wow, that’s rough”. I don’t know if it’s a mid-west thing, an A Teacher’s family Thing, or what but I would really struggle to get up the gumption to move out of this support network now that we have two kids as well.

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        • I don’t think the support of family can be over-stated. Just last weekend, we had the whole family at the horse track for my mom’s birthday. My younger nephews were just sort of handed off from cousins to aunts and uncles and back and we all help with discipline, etc. There are no lines there. If nephew is misbehaving, anyone can step in to deal with it. I was the same way when my kids were younger. They knew Uncle or Aunt or Grandma was watching.

          And as positive as that support system can be, it’s also what keeps people living in questionable neighborhoods or American Indians from moving off the reservation. That support is so hard to leave behind, even if you see economic opportunity elsewhere. It’s really a double-edged sword in some ways.

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          • It’s also a huge part of what kept my mom with my abusive dad. She wasn’t willing to lose his family and the day-in day-out support… I mean, she wouldn’t have lost all of them and really that was a justification for her real reasons, but it definitely played a role. Same reasoning kept other family members from feeling like they could do anything or say anything about their abuse – they’d be losing a lot more than just the abuser if they did so.

            You’re absolutely right about the double-edged sword thing.

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            • At the same time (other side of the sword), I know how much it helps kids in the situation I was in to have non-abusive adults around… to not only be part of the dysfunctional core. Though it must be said that for me and for all my sibs, we ended up turning to adults *outside* our family to fill that role by the time we hit school age (or younger) – no matter how much we loved some of our relatives, it was still hard to trust people who we knew knew about some of our dad’s worst traits and accepted that we had to live with them. People who didn’t know and couldn’t know were much easier to trust. Still I don’t think we would’ve known to seek out better versions of it if we didn’t have the extended family context to start with.

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  7. Does marriage cause stability, or does stability cause marriage, or are there vicious and virtuous circles depending on the decisions you make?

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    • Causality runs both ways, I think. There are only so many ways to demonstrate that you’re making a go of something. Cohabitation is one, and I would argue that marriage is another. And I think once you make that demonstration, you’re more likely to follow through. Sort of like how you’re more likely to quit smoking the more people you tell that you’re trying.

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  8. The stability of child raising comes not from marriage, but from the willingness to make it work. I moved in with my first wife when my house burned down. She soon became pregnant, even with birth control. Marriage was soon after, and not long after that was divorce. But at every point, we put the welfare of our son at the forefront of our activities. Often at our own lives expense. Because that is what parents do. Now, I am 47, my son has graduated college, I am in a financially secure place, my ex is in a financially secure place and we get along fairly well.

    A friend of mine is now living with a woman and their son. He is 48, she is 47 and their son is three. They have always talked about marriage, but are just so tired, all the time.

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      • Its an extreme case but it is becoming more common these days. Not just among the really educated and prosperous people you worked a lot when they are younger. I’ve encountered working class people who also had children really late in life. I’m not sure what I think about it personally. Its not something that you can legislate against but it seems really bad to have children when you will be a senior citizen before they are an adult. Thats if your kid is normal. If your kid turns out to have special needs and won’t ever be a fully functioning adult, its even worse.

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        • Oh yeah, I agree. I don’t think it’s crazy as in something should be done crazy just that even in the best of conditions late 60 year olds just won’t have the energy to chase a 16 year old around.

          That said I’ve seen that age disparity, usually with grandparents raising grandkids.

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