People of a certain age (like me) can recall a time when the phrases “living together in sin” or “shacking up” were spoken in an embarrassed whisper. One did not discuss such things in front of the children or in polite company. When movie stars were revealed to have done it, newspapers printed scandalized headlines. Nowadays, “living together” is not only an everyday phrase, it is a stage most Americans under 60 have gone through before marriage and, sometimes, after a marriage ends.
This change is another startling social revolution that has become banally “normal” in America (like mothers working; see this post). It is, of course, connected to a related social revolution: the general acceptance of premarital sex between adults. A third related change, the increase in children born out of wedlock and living without their fathers, is a different matter – it has not become banally normal and has had some difficult consequences. But, living together or cohabiting, once a hushed secret, is now, in many parts of America, an expected part of adulthood. What happened?
Figuring out how many people today live together unwed but as partners or, as used to be said, in “common law marriages” is not a simple matter. Many of these cohabiting arrangements are vague. Each member of the couple, for example, may keep a separate address for a long time; in one study, half the cohabiting couples did not even agree about which month they had started living together. And the arrangement may be seen as temporary by one or both members. Even harder is estimating how many people lived together decades ago when it was much more embarrassing. Still, survey researchers, census takers, and demographers have done their best to get those estimates.
In 2010, the census calculated [pdf] that about 7.5 million couples were living together as if they were married. This figure represents a notable jump from 2009, perhaps because of the recession (dating couples save money by sharing housing), but is also part of a long-term trend. Back in 1960, probably no more than about 400,000 couples were cohabiting [pdf] so that over 50 years the numbers increased at least 18-fold, or from perhaps 1 percent to about 9 percent of all couple households. Even if there were many more “hidden” cohabiters a half-century ago, that is still a major change – and it may well be underestimated.
The change is even more sizable if we ask how many Americans cohabit at some point during their adult lives. Around 1985, about 20 percent of women under 45 had lived with a partner at least once in their lives; by 1995, that percentage had doubled to 40. The practice spread especially fast among non-college-graduates [source1; source2]. The U.S. may be moving toward a situation common in Scandinavia in which living together is how a person tests out a possible life partner.
Obviously, this development is tied in with Americans’ growing tolerance for premarital sex. When survey respondents are asked the question, “If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?,” the likelihood that they say “not wrong at all” heavily depends on the year they were born. About 1 in 5 who were born before World War I answer that way; about 1 in 2 who were born after the 1960s say that [my analysis of General Social Surveys]. It is clear where opinion is moving. Also, just having lived as a teen or adult through the late ‘60s seemed to have loosen up Americans’ attitudes about premarital sex [source].
What happened? Some would answer that cohabitation reflects the decline of moral standards in America. Perhaps. But that seems more like a description or label than an explanation.
<> One explanation is the empowerment of women: With the increasing ability of women to work for decent pay, needing to coax the first eligible breadwinner into marriage is no longer a necessary strategy for a secure life. Such women can afford to wait before making a seemingly permanent tie.
<> A second concerns the flip side of the economic story: With men’s wages stagnating and even dropping over the last 40 years, marriage is an increasingly risky deal for women. More women are trying to avoid a paycheck-less husband and an eventual divorce or, at least, they are testing the waters before plunging in. Such women, typically less-educated, are strategically waiting.
<> Third, economic changes have led to “emerging adulthoods” for both men and women. Among the middle class, both men and women are getting more education and career training. That means postponing permanent arrangements. Cohabiting is a way of handling life and love in the meantime. Among the working class, the increasing difficulty poorly-educated men have in supporting a household has led women to put off marriage (even if not to put off having a child).
<> Finally, some point to improved birth control since the 1960s. People — and here it is men who are considered the major decision-makers – can have sex without the consequences and so they avoid the longer-term commitments of legal marriage.
Obviously, one or more of these dynamics may be in play – as well as a general cultural shift in America toward more socially liberal values and emphasis on personal freedom. (See pdf.) We should also note that a good number of cohabiters are people who have married and divorced – like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and TV cook Sandra Lee – and who may be risk-averse about marrying again too quickly or at all.
Social scientists have been worrying for a couple of decades now about cohabitation’s implications. What does in it mean for relationships, for marriages, and for the children, a growing number of whom are born into or live part of their lives with cohabiting couples? (By 2000, about 2 of 5 children had this experience at some time [source].) The findings are inconsistent, in part because some people who live together do so as a prelude to marrying their partners, while others do so instead of marrying, and have no intention of marrying their current partners. Americans c. 2002 split roughly evenly on whether living together before marriage helped or hurt an eventual marriage.
Research suggests that couples who live together run a higher risk of later problems and a split-up than those who marry immediately, although some expect that this will become less true over time as cohabitation becomes more and more a standard stage of life (source1; source2; source3 pdf). Perhaps these elevated risks reflect something about the couples who hesitate to tie the knot or perhaps something about the experience of cohabiting itself. The evidence is clearer that cohabitation and the turnover in male adults it often disturbs children and can create problems.
We must appreciate, again, that the cohabiters come in two kinds. (Actually, perhaps three if you include the ones who move back and forth between the partners’ homes or have a casual arrangement for just a few weeks.) One kind, historically more common, are people whose circumstances are so unstable and fraught that, both in the past and today, having long-term relationships was and is difficult. They suffer and the children suffer.
The second group, growing rapidly in the last few decades, are people who in the mid-20th century would have married young but who now consider living together – with a future spouse or as a way of testing future spouses – a normal stage of life. Indeed, despite the cohabiting trend, Americans remain strongly attached to the ideal of marriage; they typically see living together as a path to, rather than a path away from, marrying until death do us part. As this life strategy becomes increasingly common, we will have to see whether it is in the long run a wise one for the couples (they seem to think it is) and for those children who live in a household of cohabiter and cohabiter instead of husband and wife.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on June 8, 2011.)