WETZSTEIN: Real drawbacks of cohabiting

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Among American family trends, it is safe to say gay marriage has dominated headlines. But gay marriage is not the biggest story in family trends. That honor goes to the rise of unmarried cohabiting.

“No family change has come to the fore in modern times more dramatically, and with such rapidity, as heterosexual cohabitation outside of marriage,” David Popenoe, former co-director of the National Marriage Project, wrote in a 2008 essay.

Why should you care about cohabiting? Because this cultural tsunami is touching everyone’s lives. Premarital cohabiting is becoming so common that only the religious people or the oddest of oddballs resist it. Very few people, like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, even still squawk against it.

A major argument for premarital cohabiting is that young adults believe it is a shield against divorce: People test drive cars and walk through homes before buying; surely some bed time is in order before marriage.

I have been reading, writing and interviewing people about cohabiting for more than a decade, and I am still not sold on it. I agree cohabiting is not a kiss of death for a relationship. But I am unhappy that its genuine drawbacks — especially for women — keep getting papered over or buried under blather. I am worried that a bogus script (e.g., don’t worry, be happy) is being written for cohabiting, similar to what was written about no-fault divorce in the 1970s. We all know how well that has worked out.

First, a little history is in order.

Before 1970, it was “uncommon” for an unmarried man and woman to live together and share a bed. In fact, it was “a deviant and unlawful practice found only among people at the margins of our society,” Mr. Popenoe wrote in his essay, “Cohabitation, Marriage and Child Wellbeing: A Cross-National Perspective.”

Then came the sexual revolution. Repressive sexual mores were replaced by liberal ones. Feminists urged young women to go to college to get a job, not a husband, and then head to the workplace, not the kitchen and nursery. Marriage could wait.

Sex, of course, didn’t have to wait. College men and male co-workers weren’t necessarily marriage material, feminists said, but many of these guys were perfectly suitable for a romp in the sack. Birth control pills and legal abortion could take care of any fetal entanglements.

The advent of easy divorce in the 1970s advanced cohabiting, Mr. Popenoe wrote. As couples broke free of their marriage vows, a huge pool of divorcees emerged. Many exes weren’t ready to sign up with a new spouse, but they were more than willing to spend the night with someone, especially if that someone would kindly get up, get dressed and get lost by morning.

“It should be obvious, then, that in an era of relatively unrestricted premarital sex, women in the workplace, delayed marriage and high marital breakup, there is a profound logic — almost an inevitability — about the practice of living together before marriage,” Mr. Popenoe wrote.

According to a National Marriage Project analysis of Census Bureau data, the number of cohabiting couples has grown from 439,000 in 1960 to 6,445,000 in 2007. This is a mind-boggling 1,368 percent increase.

Cohabiting is not just for the young. Adults of all ages do it, and local anti-cohabiting laws either have been repealed or rendered toothless. Instead, unmarried domestic partnerships, including those for same-sex couples, have become popular.

So, if unmarried cohabiting has become a rite of passage, what’s the fuss? Why shouldn’t parents help their young adult children set up house with someone?

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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