The number of unmarried couples living together in the United States has geometrically increased during the past four decades. In 1960 there were 439,000; by 1984 the number had jumped to 1,988,000; in 1998 the Census Bureau figure stood at 4,200,000.
Those statistics will hardly surprise anyone. Every person in the United States today quite likely knows at least one unmarried couple living together.
What factors stimulated this dramatic shift toward living together among unmarried couples?
The U.S. census indicates that there was a gigantic surge in the number of unmarried cohabiting couples during the 60s and 70s. Reviewing American society in those turbulent decades reveals several phenomena which directly or indirectly contributed to this rapid increment: the “greening” of America with its antipathy towards institutions of any type; the bitter debates over the Vietnam war; the legalization of abortion; the common acceptance and practice of contraceptives; the introduction of explicit sexual scenes in films and television; a common toleration, even approbation of cohabitation; the growing mobility in our culture; the delay of marriage due to graduate studies and the training for professions; the accelerating rate of divorces; and the rapid pace of life in the United States.
Examples of cohabiting reasons follow:
Cohabiting for Convenience: With John working the day shift in a factory, Mary the 3:00 – 11:00 hours at a hospital and their two family homesteads almost a half hour drive apart, this couple found making time to be together a difficult and frustrating task. Renting an apartment and moving in together resolved that challenge.
Cohabiting for Economy: Ann and Bill rented separate apartments and hoped to begin marriage with a home of their own. By sharing one apartment, they used the saved rental money to purchase a house.
Cohabiting for Discernment: Sam and Alice grew up in a split family, both of their parents having divorced when they were in elementary school. Each found that experience painful and devastating. They do not want their children to suffer the same trauma of divorce. This couple thought that living together before marriage would help them evaluate their own relationship and better prepare them for married life.
Are there negative effects to cohabiting before marriage?
Higher Risk of Divorce: Cohabiters who do marry are more at risk for subsequent divorce than those who did not cohabit before marriage. In the United States the risk of divorce is 50 percent higher for cohabiters than for non-cohabiters. The divorce rate is even higher with previously married cohabiters and serial cohabiters (those who have had several cohabiting experiences). There are some indications that the divorce rate is higher for couples who live together for a longer period of time, especially over three years.
Less Satisfactory Adjustments in Marriage: In a study cited by the bishop’s committee, cohabiters generally report lower satisfaction with marriage after they marry than do non-cohabiters. There are indications that some living-together couples have more problematic, lower-quality relationships with more individual and couple problems than non-cohabiters.
Harmful Effect Upon Children: Research in both England and the United States details the negative impact upon children, including a much higher incidence of child abuse (10 to 33 times more likely with unmarried couples than with married couples).
Cohabiting couples are more likely to:
Duck Tough Issues: They know or intuit that at least a high percentage of cohabiting couples split prior to marriage. Conscious of this fact, they may avoid discussing or dealing with problematic areas lest those discussions weaken or break their already tenuous connection.
Repress Anger and Avoid Criticism of Each Other’s Annoying Behavior: The fragile nature of the cohabiting relationship can make a couple extremely cautious and reluctant to complain about the other’s insensitive or irritating actions.
Fail to Develop Realistic and Satisfactory Financial Habits: Prior to the wedding, couples treasure independence and economic equality. Solid marriages require, instead, interdependence and mutual exchange of resources.
The free-spending habits of one partner during cohabitation may be perfectly acceptable, even pleasing to the other. Once married, that may not be the case. Saving for a house, anticipating babies, and providing for their children’s future college education now become more pressing issues.
Suffer Strained Relationships with Parents, Close Family Members and Treasured Friends: Many of us, at least to some extent, are people pleasers. To have people we care about, particularly our fathers and mothers, critical of our actions causes us pain. That in turn can impact the interaction between the cohabiting man and woman.
In an effort to avoid troublesome confrontation, dishonesty, untruthfulness and inauthenticity may creep into relationships with others, including and above all, parents. This, of course, applies mainly to those who are away from home and at some distance because of college or work situations. Rather than disappoint parents, incur criticism or experience rejection, the cohabiting person may fudge, conceal or even lie about the cohabitation arrangement.
Struggle with an Undercurrent of Guilt by this Violation of One’s Conscience or Religious Upbringing: When persons have been raised in the Catholic Church—including Baptism, Penance, Communion and Confirmation—and for all their adolescent life have been taught its teachings, then they rarely are able simply and radically to discard the Church or discount those instructions.
Father Joseph M. Champlin is a prolific free-lance writer and rector of Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, New York.
Source: Catholic Update, 2003
St. Anthony Messenger Press