Should We Focus Less on Marriage and More on Stable Cohabitation?

by Amber Lapp

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At the recent Brookings Institution event about the findings of the “Knot Yet” report, Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, made an intriguing point:  “We should focus less on marriage and more on stable cohabitation.”

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin echoed that sentiment, although more tempered, when he said, “The problem though is not cohabitation per se; the problem is American-style cohabitation. We have the shortest duration of cohabitating unions of any Western country…. So, yes, marriage is very important, but so is stability, and sometimes we might be able to encourage stability even if we can’t successfully encourage marriage. and that might be a worthy goal.”

I’m all for finding ways to help my cohabiting friends and neighbors with children become more stable. I’ve watched, sadly, as the 20-something cohabiting couple next door went from attached-at-the-hip in-love-ness as they delighted in parenting their toddler son together, to the bitterness of a break up brought on by cheating, to the birth of a second child, and now to the ambiguity of late night visits and subsequent all-nighters spent trying to piece the relationship back together before he has to leave in the dusky dawn morning for his electrician’s job in a nearby city 45 minutes away.

But to me, the point popular among elites—that our energies would best be spent on stabilizing cohabitation, not fussing over marriage—largely misses the point.

As cited in the Knot Yet report, the majority of American young adults still want marriage. To say that we should not focus on promoting marriage but rather on making cohabitation more stable is to ignore the aspirations of most cohabiting couples. Furthermore, it is unclear to me how one would go about stabilizing cohabitation without imposing on it many of the same expectations and norms of marriage.

Among the Middle American demographic—defined as the almost 60 percent of high school educated adults who have a high school diploma but no four-year college degree—it is rare to meet someone who sees lifelong cohabitation as the preferred long-term alternative to marriage. Of the 74 high-school-educated young adults my husband and I interviewed as part of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, only one of them said that he straight up did not believe in marriage. Ironically, he was happily married. (He explained that he married to accommodate his Jehovah’s Witness parents, but that as an agnostic he personally saw no point in marriage and would have been fine with lifelong cohabitation.)

So while most Middle Americans cohabit at one point or another, most also want to get married to someone eventually. In their view, living together is what you do in the meantime, while you discern if this is the right person for marriage and get to a basic level of financial independence—but cohabitation is not the end goal.

Given this understanding, cohabitation is by definition unstable. It is a place of deciding, whereas marriage is the decision. It is a process, or journey; marriage is the culmination, or destination. In the minds of Middle Americans, marriage is what you do when you are certain, when you’re stable. Cohabitation is what happens while you try to get to that point.

Now, we could try to change that. As a society, we could freight cohabitation with some of the same meanings as marriage, like fidelity, commitment, and permanence. In other words, we could encourage young adults to only cohabit once they are committed. Or at least encourage them to wait to have children until their cohabiting relationship is a committed one.

But the question then is how to define commitment? Without the symbols of marriage, how would we as a society recognize and encourage commitment? What would that look like? And how would you distinguish between cohabiting couples who want to be committed and seen as committed, and those that are just testing the waters before deciding whether or not to jump in?

As it stands now, cohabiting couples privately determine their own levels of commitment. So it’s theoretically possible that a cohabiting couple could privately make the same vows that a married couple does. And while I’m sure there are people who do, it’s often the case that even people who say they feel married—like Carly, the 31-year-old cohabiting mother who told her imploring daughter that mommy and daddy did not need to get married in order to stay together—find themselves in ambiguous relationship territory. In her first interview, Carly told me clearly that she and her boyfriend were doing just fine without marriage: “I don’t think you need a piece of paper. And that’s all it is…. you don’t necessarily have to be married to live together, be together, have children.”

A year later I talked with Carly again, after she and her boyfriend had broken up. Turns out, he was not as committed as Carly had hoped—he had been seeing other women throughout the duration of their 12-year relationship. Carly now says that because of the experience of “having lived with someone for almost 12 years,” she changed her mind about marriage:

“I think it’s a greater commitment as far as getting married and having the same last name and signing that paper versus just living together…. [When] you’re livin’ together. Anything could happen…. everybody says, ‘Oh, [marriage is] just a piece of paper,’ but that piece of paper is – tryin’ to think of how to put it. That piece of paper is more binding than just really being together. It’s gonna be harder for you to stray. I know there’s people who do, but you’re actually gonna have to work if somethin’ goes wrong. You’re gonna have to work on it because it’s gonna be a lot harder to separate and just say, “Ah, well, forget it”…. I think that getting married is a greater love and commitment than just living with someone.”

When asked if there is a difference between marriage and cohabitation, the young adults we talked with usually gave some variation of the answer that Carly gave, saying something along the lines of marriage being more of a “bond” than cohabitation. As Tammy, a 22-year-old cohabiting mother, said:

“I think it’s easier to walk away from someone that you’re just living with…. because I feel like a lot of guys, whether they act like it or not, they remember that they vowed not to hurt this person or to harm them or to commit adultery or whatever. I think that has a large part to do with it because you took their hand in marriage through sickness and in health and to be there, and I think that plays in their mind whether anyone believes it or not.”

For Middle Americans like Carly and Tammy, the act of getting married is a sign of the intentionality of the relationship. Marriage carries with it the risk of divorce, and the willingness to accept that risk says a lot about the seriousness of one’s commitments to the other person.

Creating “more stable cohabitation” would mean closing the gap between these two different levels of commitment. (And thus in a way making cohabitation more like marriage.) To do this effectively, as the quotes from the young adults above suggest, we cannot rely on the private pillow talk vows of couples. We need an outside institution that is bigger than the couple themselves to offer accountability, added symbols of meaning like rings and weddings, and a public dimension. As Sara, 25, put it, “It’s good to have a visual. It’s good to have all of your senses involved. When you can see that [the marriage license is] there, that’s just another solid piece of the relationship that you have with somebody.”

If the instability of cohabitation were only a financial instability, then we could attempt to stabilize cohabitation through economic policy. But the instability of cohabitation is also an emotional instability driven largely by a trust deficit, as I discussed in my previous post.

So perhaps I am missing something, but I think that for the majority of cohabiting couples, helping them become more stable means helping them get to the point where they are ready—financially and emotionally—to make the decisive commitment of marriage. As we know from the research, this is what they themselves want.

Amber is the co-investigator of  the Love and Marriage in Middle America project at the Institute for American Values. She blogs at FamilyScholars.org.