Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 4, 2013

Unmarried couples living together is new norm, U.S. study says

By Elizabeth Lopatto

— Three of four women in the United States have lived with a partner without being married by age 30, an increasing trend that suggests cohabitation is now a regular part of family life, researchers said.

The survey of 12,279 women ages 15 through 44 also found that 40 percent of unmarried partners transitioned to marriage within 3 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. A third of the arrangements stayed intact without marriage, while 27 percent dissolved, the study found.

More people are putting off marriage either because they can't afford it or because it's financially risky, said Gail Wyatt, director of the University of California Los Angeles's sexual health program. About 48 percent of the women surveyed lived with a partner as a first union, compared with 34 percent in 1995. Others may view cohabitation as a way of test- driving a relationship to see if a marriage will work.

"Marriage is for people who have money and want to spend money just on the wedding itself," Wyatt said in a telephone interview. She wasn't involved in the study. "Some people would rather buy a house, or just pay the rent." People who are poor or less educated may shy away from marriage and its legal complications, she said.

A couple that shares an address counts as a "first union," as does a first marriage, according to the report. Only 23 percent of first unions were marriages in the study period, compared to 39 percent in 1995.

"Cohabitation is a common part of family formation in the United States, and serves both as a step toward marriage and as an alternative to marriage," the report said.

The Atlanta-based CDC's report used interviews starting in 2006 and ending in 2010. About 70 percent of women without high school diplomas lived with a partner as their first union, compared to 47 percent of those with a bachelor's degree, the report found. Women with less than a high school diploma were less likely to marry within 3 years, compared to peers with more education.

Pregnancy is common in common-law arrangements. About 20 percent of women became pregnant in the first year of living with a partner, and went on to give birth. The probability for marriage for these women within six months was about 19 percent, lower than in 1995.

Women without a high school diploma were more likely to become pregnant, with a third of them reporting pregnancy in the first year of living together with a partner. Only 5 percent of women with a bachelor's degree became pregnant in the same time span. Those women who got pregnant were less likely to be married.

"People, especially women, make a distinction between childbearing and marriage," said Carole Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco's Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, in a telephone interview. "You can get the benefits of marriage without being married, but you have to have a child to have the benefits of a child."

 The study's takeaway is that there are more statuses than married and unmarried, Joffe said. Some people are truly single, others are cohabitating, and some are married. The question is how best to support these different kinds of families, she said.

The percentage of first unions that were cohabitations rather than marriages increased 57 percent for Hispanic women, 43 percent for white women, and 39 percent for black women in 2006 through 2010, compared to a similar survey from 1995. Only Asian women weren't more likely to cohabitate before marriage.

"We have to prepare girls not to look for white dresses as the end-all, but to look at their financial opportunities and their careers," said Wyatt. "The same is true for boys."