- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

One out of four women who live with their boyfriends say they don't expect to marry him, which may mean cohabitation is gaining ground as a lifestyle unto itself, a new study says.

"For so long, we've been looking at cohabitation as potentially leading to marriage or even a step in the marriage process like an engagement," said University of Michigan sociologist Pamela J. Smock, who co-authored a paper on cohabiting in this month's Journal of Family Issues.

Now there's a solid minority of cohabiting couples who "explicitly say they do not plan to marry," she said. A survey of 715 cohabiting women in 1995 found 26 percent said they did not plan to marry their lover.

If a woman says she doesn't intend to marry the man she's living with, it's almost certain she won't, Ms. Smock and co-author Wendy D. Manning of Bowling Green State University in Ohio said in their article, "First Comes Cohabitation and Then Comes Marriage?"

There may even be a message here for the Bush administration, Ms. Smock said, since the government is pushing for more marriage among low-income and welfare families.

Among cohabiting women, the ones with low education levels, low incomes and boyfriends with the same characteristics were the most likely to say they weren't going to marry, she said.

"Putting two and two together, in terms of Bush's marriage initiative, if we're serious about promoting marriage, we have to take care of the educational and economic profiles of young people especially young men," she said.

Cohabitation has captured the interest of U.S. family-policy experts because it is a steadily growing phenomenon: In 1960, the Census Bureau counted fewer than 500,000 unmarried couples living together. In 2000, it reported 4.7 million cohabiting households.

For a long time, there was social stigma about "living in sin" or "shacking up," as radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger still calls it and most cohabiting couples would get married. In the 1970s, about 60 percent of cohabiting couples walked down the aisle within three years.

But social pressures have waned. Since the 1990s, only about a third of cohabiting couples marry within three years, Ms. Smock and Ms. Manning write.

Janice Shaw Crouse, senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute (BLI), a traditional-values organization that studies women's issues, is one of many family-policy experts alarmed by the rise in cohabiting.

Today, more than half of couples who marry have lived together first, and about half of young women (ages 25 to 39) have lived with a man who wasn't their husband, said Mrs. Crouse, who yesterday spoke about the state of America's children at a BLI-sponsored forum held on Capitol Hill.

"Worse still, an increasing number of these [cohabiting] couples have children," she said.

Research consistently shows children are happiest when they live in a low-conflict home with their two biological parents, Kristin A. Moore, president of Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group, told the forum.

Being married matters, she said: When it comes to research on family structure and children's well-being, cohabiting parents "look the same" as single-parent families and stepfamilies.

There's a long list of problems with cohabiting: frequent breakups, higher risks for divorce when couples do marry and more likelihood for family abuse, said Ron Haskins, a senior adviser for welfare policy in the Bush administration and scholar at the Brookings Institution. In general, he said, "cohabiting is a plague and we should do what we can to discourage it."


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